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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Current Research on Dating in Middle School: What Parents Need to Know

This month, my guest blogger is Jack Simons, our 8th grade counselor at ECMS.  Jack's background in counseling is in high school and middle school.  He is currently finishing his doctoral dissertation in the Department of Counseling and Family Therapy at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. 

Middle School Dating? What is it, and Should My Child Be Doing It?
By Jack Simons, M.Ed., LPC
Esperero Canyon Middle School 8th Grade Counselor

As a middle school counselor, I often wonder which students are dating among the 8th graders with whom I work.  Occasionally, a student tells me that she or he is dating, but this is very rare. Moreover, when I ask students about what dating means, responses always vary. It appears that a pure definition of what it means to be dating does not exist for these students. Some can only smile making me wonder what they are actually really thinking about. Parents have questions too. They ask, “Do you think that my daughter or son should be dating?” Indeed, dating is a perplexing area for early adolescent youth and their family members.

While there is literature that exists which supports dating and offers recommendations for students, there is also literature that discounts the practice. And, more of the latter research has been published. A quick review appears to indicate that more negative consequences exist for students who date at the middle school level than those who do not. A database search brings up words such as aggression, drug use, academic failure, psychological harm, prevention programs, and more. As parent myself with a daughter who will be an early adolescent in just a few short years, this finding makes me hold my breath. I ask, “What could be so harmful about a student who wishes to date earlier than others? What exactly are these risks?” Well, the reality is the costs appear to outweigh the benefits – at least for now. Regardless of how well intentioned your child is, when it comes to formally dating, she or he may be on the precipice of peril. Major consequences are clearly present for middle school students who date.  These students are more likely to develop poor study skills and problems with substance use. They are also more likely to drop out of school. Why might this be?

Learning to date is like taking a new class. I see that even the most successful and well-intentioned middle school students could find it overwhelming. Dating introduces factors including confusion, distraction, and discussions about intimacy. Defining what it means to date is challenging. On one hand a student might think that dating is exchanging a few text messages whereas another might think that it is about spending every waking moment of the day with another person. I could easily see this affecting a student’s schoolwork and emerging academic identity. Peer reviewed research has confirmed these outcomes as well. Orpinas et al. (2013) studied the trajectories of students enrolled in 6th grade. Special attention was paid to their study skills and dropout rates as well as drug use levels. It was discovered that 60% of the students who began dating early had significantly worse study skills. They were also more likely to drop out of school and use alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana more.

Rebecca Hill of schoolfamily.com provides the following recommendations for parents of students who ask about dating: (1) Have early ongoing conversations about dating with your children. (2) Make an effort to guide your children. Avoid power struggles and work towards middle ground when trying to establish what dating looks like. Questions to ask include, “What do you expect in a relationship? How do you want to be treated? How do you plan to treat others in a relationship?” (3) Oversee electronic media in the lives of your children and know who they are contacting. (4) Promote positive peer relationships in the lives of your children. Individuals in these relationships are often drawn upon by children before they contact you. (5) Connect with your children to develop a better sense of how to nurture them. They will remember these interactions whether they want them or not, and they are observing your relationships too.

To conclude, “Should dating be excluded from the middle school?” I would say most likely, yes, but not always. It’s worth a discussion with your child, and the outcome depends on your child’s needs. As a parent, you will make the final the decision, and hopefully with more knowledge and discussion with your child, you will be able to make choices that are in your child’s best interest and welfare. As a school counselor, I support modeling healthy dating behavior practices, providing students with dating information, and, certainly, always advocating for school success.  

References

Hill, R. A. (2014). Dating in middle school: Is it worth the risk? School Family: Your Go-To for School Success. Retrieved from http://www.schoolfamily.com/school-family-articles/article/10879-dating-in-middle-school-is-it-worth-the-risk
Orpinas, P., Horne, A. M., Song, X., Reeves, P. M. & Hsieh, H. (2013). Dating trajectories from middle to high school: Association with academic performance and drug use. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 23(4), 772-784. doi: 10.1111/jora.12029

Ten (Humble) Suggestions for Parents on How to Address Middle School Dating
by Mary Setliff,  ECMS Principal

1.  Don’t call it “dating.” Call it “hanging out."  Emphasize friendship. 
2.  Make "hanging out" with friends something that happens under your supervision. Taking kids out for a movie and pizza or to the game are all possibilities.  This de-emphasizes "dating" and makes it less glamorous.  
3.  Avoid "couple speak."  Making seemingly innocuous statements like "You look cute together" may not send the message you intend. Instead of "boyfriend" or "girlfriend," say "friend" when referring to your child's pals. 
4.  When students talk about romance and fantasies of love and marriage, be direct.  Tell them that you believe that they are too young to date. Explain why.  
5.  Focus on school;  encourage effort; monitor your child's academic progress regularly. The social aspect of school should not be the first concern.  In truth, a student needs only a couple of good, solid friendships and an ability to be happy in his/her own company.  
6.  If your child goes out with friends, you have a right to know all of the details.  There should be a plan in place where all time is accounted for.   If details are sketchy, consider getting more information before you say "yes" to the outing.
7.  Misuse of social media among adolescents can lead to unhealthy boundaries and abusive, controlling behaviors in potential dating scenarios.  This can happen in middle school when students become intensely involved. Talk to your child about his/her use of social media. Monitor, monitor, monitor…it is your right as a parent. Highly rated parental control software products according to PC Magazine include Net Nanny, Web Watcher, McAfee Safe Eyes and PC Pandora.  
8.  Remember  that 10 percent of students in grades 9 to 12 consistently say they’ve been physically hurt on purpose by a dating partner during the past year, according to the ongoing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) youth risk surveys.  It is important to start talking to students about safe relationships and healthy boundaries.  
9.  If you feel that your child is dating too early and don't know what to do about it, seek professional help sooner rather than later. Your school guidance counselor is a great place to start.  
10.  In middle school, dating in unchartered territory for both parents and students.  It is one thing to experience adolescence firsthand, yet another to experience it as a parent.  Take advantage of local parent educational opportunities.  Talk to other parents.  You will find you are not alone.  


Thanks to Jack for his expertise!  Jack is at jsimons@cfsd16.org

Caryl Altman is our 6th and 7th grade counselor.  She and I will be teaming up to write about eating disorders and cutting in the next EAGLE ANGLE.  Caryl can be reached at caltman@cfsd16.org. 

We are so fortunate at ECMS to have such a competent and highly qualified counseling staff.  Thanks to Jack and Caryl for all they do for our kids!

Please write to me at msetliff@cfsd16.org or simply post a comment!

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