I went on my first date when I was almost 14 with a boy named Richie. We sat in the back row of the movie theater sort of watching Tootsie, but mostly making out until the extremely sappy ballad “It Might Be You” trailed off into silence and the usher gave us the side-eye. It was awesome.
For two straight weeks, Richie and I held hands under the lunch table at school and made out behind the gym until the bell rang. We sighed longingly into the phone receiver for hours each night. I wanted it to go on forever, but Richie soon broke up with me for Theresa. I was devastated and wondered if I’d done something wrong. Of course, I’d done nothing wrong. The teenage heart is often at the mercy of the teenage libido. Mine was excited but cautious. Richie’s was bulging out of his pants. Clearly, we were not meant to be.
My oldest daughter is now 14 and on the brink of her own dating life. Compared to mine, her dating landscape seems so much more intense. First of all, it’s not called “dating.” Instead, two people might be “talking,” which isn’t talking at all but simply ongoing digital contact beyond “just friends” and before “hooking up” — which can mean absolutely anything from kissing to sex. Phone calls and in-person conversation have been replaced with texts, sexts, Instagram tagging, and Snapchat streaks flying at all hours. Teens rarely seem to go out to the movies or for an ice cream, but might go out in a group. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to tell if anyone is actually interacting meaningfully with anyone else. Add to that the tremendous physical expectations for girls, both in looks and acts, and teen dating can be downright stressful.
Social and cultural pressures plus the layer of explicitness, speed, and secretiveness that technology adds makes the idea of healthy teen relationships seem impossible. It’s definitely different than when I was a teenager, but the experience of handling and expressing feelings and desires is still the same.
I might not be in on all the details of my daughter’s love life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few tidbits of advice for her. So before you begin to date for real, dear daughter, here’s what I think you should know:
1. Feel all the feels.
Love is the most amazing high in the world and also the greatest heartbreak. Your heart will soar when your crush crushes back, and will plummet when they don’t or a relationship ends. Learning how to handle both the highs and lows is part of growing up. Even though putting yourself out there is risky, it’s worth it to feel the overwhelm of it all. Practice getting into and out of relationships and learn how to be okay when the addictive rush of being wanted disappears and you’re back to being on your own.
2. Be true to yourself.
Stay true to what’s important to you, whether that’s your values, friendships, or beliefs. Be open about how you feel about sex, boundaries, parties, drugs, and anything else that comes up between you and whoever you’re with. Stay in touch with how you feel, both emotionally and physically. It may seem awkward at first, but not being honest becomes even more awkward and potentially dangerous later on. If you can’t be yourself in a relationship, then it’s not the relationship for you.
3. Be clear about what you want.
Forget about waiting around for your love object to ask you to hang out. If you like someone, go ahead and let them know. Same goes for any physical interaction. If your partner isn’t reciprocating and you want them to, say so. Your desires are important too.
4. No means no.
There will be pressure to do stuff you don’t feel comfortable with, whether it’s texting someone a semi-nude pic, meeting them alone, or engaging in any physical act. Remember, you always have a choice. And while the social repercussions might seem too hard to bear, in the long run, you have to do what’s right for you. If the person you’re with doesn’t respect your wishes, get out of there or get help (including calling or texting me). You never have to agree to any activity, intimate or otherwise, you don’t want to do or are unsure about. As your grandmother says, “If you’re ever in doubt, don’t.”
5. Sexting is not dating.
Physical and/or digital interaction alone does not a relationship make. While it might mean a person is trying to tell you they’re interested, it shouldn’t be the only connection that defines your relationship. Besides, hook-ups and sexting, while thrilling, have the potential to be anywhere from demeaning to abusive. Wanting an emotional connection that includes kindness, love, respect, reciprocity and friendship is totally valid. If that’s not what you’re getting, move on.
6. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
Spending special time with someone you like isn’t tricky. The idea is to enjoy each other. As soon as the fun is hard to come by or the relationship feels imbalanced, reevaluate what’s going on. You have your whole life to get tangled up in complicated relationships. For now, try to keep it simple.
7. Be kind.
Everyone has feelings. If someone asks you out, you don’t have to say yes but do try to say “no” kindly. It’s not easy putting yourself out there, taking a risk, and letting another person know how you feel about them. The same goes for breaking up: Don’t put it off because you feel guilty or don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. The kindest thing is to be honest as soon as possible.
8. Love yourself.
No matter who you date or don’t date, and no matter who likes you or who doesn’t, always believe in yourself. How you feel, what you think, and what you want matters. Crushes come and go, but you will always have you, so take care of yourself inside and out.
My dating days are long behind me. Now it’s my daughter’s turn to experience the thrill of a first date, the dizzying flush of love, and the heartache of breaking up. I’m excited for her — and if I’m honest, a little jealous too — because there’s nothing quite like a teenage romance.
But don’t call it that because “romance” is not a “thing.” Duh.