You knew this was coming: Your teen wants to start dating. Maybe she's already announced that she has, or you found out by noticing a change in her relationship status on Facebook. As frightening as it might be to talk with your child about romantic relationships, open discussion is imperative. Dating is a normal part of growing up. If the two of you communicate openly, your child is much more likely to come to you with his questions and worries, and to allow you to positively influence his choices.

What does dating mean, anyway?

Kate Fogarty, an assistant professor of youth development at the University of Florida, says adolescents and adults define dating differently. Most middle-schoolers, she notes, want a boyfriend or girlfriend because it elevates their social standing, not necessarily because they like a classmate's personality. Pairs this young might declare themselves to be a couple even though they don't spend much time together. "It may be texting. It may be talking on the phone," says psychiatrist Gail Saltz, who specializes in relationships. "It may be in school and not out of school." Many teens also spend time together in groups, so pairing off doesn't necessarily mean spending time alone together.

Is your teen ready?

Some parents say their teens won't be allowed to date until they reach a certain age. Others prohibit them from dating at all. But this could backfire. "Whenever parents tighten the reins too much, that's when the rebellion happens," Fogarty says. A better idea, Saltz says, is to ask your child what dating specifically means to her. As a parent, you can allow your child to date – or not – based on how mature she is. How can you measure maturity? Consider questions like these:

  • How does your child handle responsibility?
  • Does he do his homework and household chores without being prodded?
  • How well does he handle his own money?
  • Is your child impulsive or does she think her actions through before taking them?
  • Is your child trustworthy?
  • How well does your child judge another person's character?

Making Rules

Having a girlfriend or boyfriend means your child is growing up, but you're still the parent. That means you can, and should, set limits. At this age, Fogarty says reasonable parental supervision over a relationship is key. You might decide to say your child is not allowed to bring his girlfriend to your house unless an adult is home or limit how often he uses his cell phone. You should definitely insist on meeting anyone your teen is dating. Rules you set shouldn't just be handed down, but determined based on an open conversation. "If you're going to tell them no about something, you've got to explain why," Saltz says.

Teaching Your Teen to be Careful

Dating comes with extra responsibilities. Teens need to know how to watch out for danger signs, like controlling partners and pressure to have sex before they're ready. But prohibiting your child from dating doesn't mean you can avoid these issues. "If your kid wants to go have sex or is being pressured to have sex, they don't need to go on a date to do that," Saltz says. Teens need warnings about what to watch out for. But Cori Manthorne, director of programs at Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse, a nonprofit agency in Burlingame, Calif., suggests framing these warnings in a positive way.

Emphasize that each person deserves to be treated with respect, Manthorne says. Stress that your teen always has the freedom to stand up for herself and make her own choices. Talk to your teen about the relationships he's seen and how he knows what a healthy relationship looks and feels like. "They've seen their parents," Manthorne says. "They've seen their friends' parents. They've seen TV." Here are some points to discuss with your teen:

  • What qualities your teen looks for in a person she'd like to date.
  • Possible consequences of "sexting." Lewd texts messages meant for just a boyfriend or girlfriend can easily be sent to hundreds of people. 
  • Dangers that could result from your teen being alone with a person he doesn't know well. 
  • Consequences of having sex, like creating more vulnerability in a relationship, contracting a sexually transmitted disease and conceiving a child. Boys aren't exempt from the responsibilities that come when a girlfriend becomes pregnant.
  • Warning signs of an abusive relationship.

No matter how open you keep your discussions with your teen, there will be some things she won't want to discuss with her parents. Manthorne suggests stressing that it's OK for her to talk about sensitive subjects with another trusted adult as long as she's talking with someone. Perhaps an aunt, a teacher or a friend's parent could provide counsel.

If your teen wants to start dating, there's nothing to be afraid of. Your guidance on whether it's appropriate to date and how to be careful in the realm of romantic relationships will help him navigate this crucial part of growing up.