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Relationships that start earlier may lead to issues later on

Published: Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

DeKALB – When Tricia Maxwell’s son started dating at 13, she wanted to take a hands-on approach to parenting him but not too hands-on.

Maxwell’s son, Avery, started a relationship that would last more than two years. The DeKalb resident said dating tends to be a tough subject for parents as they don’t want things to go too far. She remembers some of her relatives saying children at that age shouldn’t be in a serious relationship. 

“This is an age when they are learning to deal with relationships and be in a relationships,” she said. “… You can give them the information and you can teach them, but they need to experience it in order to learn it. As parents, we need to make sure we are part of their lives.” 

Maxwell said her son, now a junior at DeKalb High School, never let his grades slip and always stayed active in school, even after he ended his relationship.

However, some researchers have found children who get involved in intimate relationships at an early age tend to face more social and emotional problems later on, such as substance abuse or other delinquent behavior. 

A study, published in the December issue of the Journal of Adolescence, surveyed more than 600 students between 1996 and 2003. The study found students who dated early – at the average age of about 11 – had reported more acts of delinquent behavior than those dated after the age of 12. 

Dating at a young age could cause emotional and social problems in the future but there are many other factors that could play a role as well, said Ahna Young, clinical director for the DeKalb County Youth Services Bureau. The bureau provides assistance and resources to youths between the ages of 8 and 18, along with their families. The youths it assists tend to be between 12 and 18, she said. 

Children who date at a young age could form unhealthy attachments with their partners, who could then influence their decisions in life in a way similar to peer pressure. She said children also may not have the resources to cope with a breakup in a healthy way, should it occur. 

“At that stage of life, they don’t have the perspective and coping skills to get through that,” she said. 

One of the major differences between adolescents and adults in relationships is hormone levels, which affects an adolescents’ emotional state, Young said. Relationships can be much more intensified when hormones are a strong driving force, she said. 

Young said she recommends parents with children who date in their adolescence should be approachable and communicative with them. She said they should set guidelines appropriate for their family and not try to do anything drastic such as forbidding a child from seeing the person they like.

“A lot of times we’ve seen that backfiring,” she said.  

When it came to her own son’s relationship, Maxwell said it was important to get to know the parents of the person their child is dating because it can be a good indication of who they are. She said she made sure to meet with her son’s girlfriend’s family. 

She said it’s also important for parents to make sure they talk with their children about sex and relationships. They should also ingrain in their children that school is a top priority. If they do that, then it will be an attitude they will carry with them throughout their high school and college years, she said. 

“Try to be available,” she said, “because when the heartbreak comes and if it’s the first time, they need to have someone to talk to.”

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