From the November 2019 issue

Teens Are Better Off Not Dating in High School

A study says not dating in high school results in teens being more social and less depressed compared to those who do. Here's a case for holding off.

Illustration by Jay Holladay

“You’re always with your boyfriend.”

“Can we ever hang out with you without your girlfriend?”

We all had those friends in high school – or we were one of those friends – in a serious relationship, struggling to find balance.

Even though dating caused drama back then, it was always seen as a rite of passage for teens – and it still is today.

But should it be?

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Perhaps not, according to findings published online in the Journal of School Health, which says teens that didn’t date in middle and high school had better social skills and lower instances of depression than those who did date.

It’s not surprising, says Judith Malinowski, LLP, CAADC, CCS, a behavioral health therapist at Ascension Eastwood Behavioral Health in Novi. “I don’t see dating as a really healthy thing for a lot of teenagers,” Malinowski says. “I think it’s one more area of their life that they do not feel that they have control over. There’s just so much anxiety.”

To top it off, she says, teens are emotionally unstable and hormonal. In fact, they don’t develop emotional maturity until their mid-20s, so it’s easy for them to become jealous and distracted by their relationships.

So, should dating still be considered a rite of passage?

“Maybe we should just stop expecting teens to want to date and kind of hold off,” Malinowski says. “Wait until you’re out of high school or wait until you’re in college, because you don’t really have the mental maturity.”

Dating dilemmas

In previous research, four dating rates were identified for students in sixth to 12th grade: low, increasing, high (in middle school) and frequent. The newer study looked at a sample of 594 10th graders in the low dating category to examine how they differed emotionally and interpersonally from the other groups.

The positive outcomes for these single teens led researchers to suggest non-dating as a health development option.

Still, it’s not uncommon for single teens to feel like the odd person out or feel lonely, Malinowski notes. “I think that’s the hardest thing with teenagers anyway, is they are always comparing – and I don’t think they tend to compare themselves in a positive light.”

While some may struggle with not dating, those who date are faced with pressure to balance their relationship with school and extracurriculars – and that can cause major issues.

“Something is going to give,” she says, “and what I’ve seen that is very, very concerning to me is that it’s usually their same-sex peer relationships.”

Those teens end up feeling isolated from their friend groups as a result.

Another stressor? The pressure to get intimate.

“I think there’s an expectation of the idea that there’s going to be a sexual relationship sooner. That’s a lot of pressure that teens feel,” Malinowski says. Teens get into exclusive relationships and think everyone else is having sex.

“They get pressured into engaging in a sexual relationship that they are not ready for, which then also puts the pressure to stay in the relationship when they don’t want to stay in the relationship, because they’ve had this sexual experience.”

Talk it out

Start conversations about dating early and have them often, Malinowski suggests.

“If parents feel like their son or daughter isn’t comfortable talking to them about it, which often happens, make sure that they have somebody in their life that their child can talk to,” she adds, “so that if they are going through something difficult, then they have a resource they can go to.”

Timing is important, too. Use those opportunities when a teen is more forthcoming – whether you’re driving, watching a movie or talking about someone else – to talk.

Be available, be present and be curious – and avoid lecturing your child.

Finally, check yourself.

“My biggest concern is not the parents that are talking to their teens about the drawbacks of dating, it’s that I see a lot of parents encouraging their teenagers to get into relationships and to get into those dating situations,” she says.

Oftentimes, parents are concerned their child isn’t fitting in because he or she isn’t dating, but it’s completely fine for a teen to forgo that romantic relationship. So, instead of living vicariously through your teen, let your teen live his or her way.

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