By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
When it comes to dating, prom is one thing -- many teens go to the event with a friend, not a romantic interest.
But the big dance raises big questions about how parents handle dating issues with their teens and how they can help their teens with romantic issues. And the most important thing parents can do is keep the door wide open to conversation and to those prospective dates.
"Obviously, it's about staying involved," said Vickie Cupp, a counselor and licensed social worker with Behavior Management Associates in Joplin. "If everyone is on the same page, there is less of a hole for the child to fall in."
That may be difficult, especially for parents who insist their children will not date until they are 84. But talking about dating early and often helps a teen figure out what kind of values and qualities they find desirable.
It starts with a list of boundaries that teens set, Cupp said. They should think about the qualities that they look for and not those they settle for.
"A child needs to have a set of boundaries literally written out," Cupp said. "That's what happens with any relationship as they get to know somebody."
Problems can arise when a teen falls for someone who doesn't meet those boundaries, Cupp said. When that happens, they put blinders on and might find themselves in situations they didn't want to be in.
That's why it's critical for parents to keep doors and minds open, and let teens make their own discoveries -- within reason.
"Parents could be open and accepting about who their child is interested in, regardless of appearance," Cupp said. "What is it about the character that the kid is drawn to?"
The more parents try to shut doors, the more teens may try to rebel, thus transferring even more feelings upon whomever they are dating, Cupp said. All the more reason to invite them to dinner, on family outings and other events.
When to date?
As for when teens should be given the privilege of dating, Cupp said there is no set answer. It depends on the teen's maturity.
"Every child is different," Cupp said. "Compare it to letting a child stay at home alone or baby-sit a younger child. You can't put an age on it, because it's very much about maturity."
Cupp said that when she talks to teens, she tells them that parents rely heavily on trust, from using cellphones correctly to respecting curfews.
Breakups happen, and when they do parents can help their teens deal with the pain of an ended relationship.
Cupp said dating is a trial run, and teens can be told that. The people they have relationships with are practice runs before ending up with a person worthy of one of the biggest decisions in their life.
Parents can help by sharing details about how they met, and how many people they dated before finding each other.
"Parents need to be open about how they met," Cupp said. "Rarely do we have that Cinderella story."