When I tell my 8th graders that adults view their relationships in much the same light as 8th graders would view Jason and Amanda, they get very offended. At the ripe old age of 14, they feel they are mature enough to handle “real” love and relationships.
For some, it’s because their parents encouraged them to date when they were in 5th or 6th grade. They thought it was cute to drive them to a movie, or out for pizza. It is cute when they’re in the first flush of romance, but there’s nothing cute about the emotional devastation left behind after a breakup. At 11 or 12 – or even at 14 – their emotions are all over the place as it is. Their self-esteem bounces from high to low, and many times relationships become hotbeds of drama, insecurity, and possessiveness.
The junior high brain doesn’t help much (yes, there is such a thing). Studies show that the back part of the brain, where ideas and impulses form, is way ahead of the front part of the brain, which is where reason and caution live. So the voice that says, “You know what would be cool/hilarious/freakin’ awesome?” is much louder than the voice that says “You could get hurt/pregnant/grounded/dead.” This can cause a teen to quickly progress from the thrill of holding hands and touching lips to – well, to bigger thrills – without any thought to the risks involved.
Dating – and breaking up – as a young teen can lead to all kinds of complications such as abusive relationships, sexual experimentation, isolation, guilt, depression, loss of friendships, and lower grades. Even the simpler, less complicated relationships eventually end in a broken heart and a huge amount of self-doubt.
Young teens will always have crushes. Boys will dream about being seen with certain girls; girls will write their first names with the boys’ last names to see how it looks. And kids will pair off – today it’s called “going out.” But that doesn’t mean they actually need to be going anywhere together.
Parents can help by setting some dating guidelines early, like “You can go out with a group but not on an actual date until you’re 16.” Parents can also avoid the temptation to make too much of the relationship. Don’t encourage the exchange of personalized jewelry, for example, or spend too much time asking about the “girlfriend” or “boyfriend.” If your teen does get involved in a relationship in junior high, be casual about it. Trying to prevent these things usually only makes them more attractive. Pushing too hard to make them look like high school relationships puts undue pressure on the teens and can lead to disastrous consequences.
Take the middle road, sort of an “Oh, that’s nice” approach. Ask a question or two, then let it go. Be available if advice is needed, but don’t offer ideas like taking her flowers or inviting him to her birthday party. Above all, don’t encourage them to go out on a date. Hold on to this thought: if they’re kissing and holding hands and so on in 8th grade – what will they be doing in 11th grade?