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When I was a little girl, I asked my dad when I could date. His response was like most dads to their daughters, half joking he said, “Never!” As I got a little older, I asked again and less jokingly that time he said, “You’re too young. Wait til you’re older.” When I was a full-fledged teenager (and thinking I was “grown enough”), I asked again, and his response was just a long exasperated sigh. We had reached the point of inevitability so there really were no words or jokes to be made.

Looking back now, as a mom with teenagers, his responses don’t seem so silly now. I look back at “dating” when I was in junior high and high school, and it makes me shake my head. I learned a lot, did my fair share of crying, and definitely made mistakes. There was so much drama I could’ve avoided, friends I wouldn’t have lost, and decisions I would’ve made differently. I wouldn’t have given things up that were so important to me just because I felt like I needed to dedicate all my time and focus to someone. I also maybe wouldn’t have unintentionally hurt other people as a casualty of being young and not knowing any better.

RELATED: Follow Your Heart But Take Your Brain With You: 20 Rules For Healthy Teen Dating

These hindsight reflections have me approaching the subject of dating differently with my kids. For my kids, the answer to “When can I date?” is twofold.

First, they need to have their priorities and time management in line first. They need to understand what things are most important and take stock of all the time, resources, and energy that go into reaching their goals and keeping commitments. That personal priority inventory includes school, family, sports, friends, and other activities. Girlfriends or boyfriends do not get to come into the mix and then nothing else matters. Obligations have to stand. People, teams, grades, and friends don’t get tossed aside for a new relationship. A girlfriend or boyfriend can be added if there is still time and energy left over before the big requirements of adult life come along.

I asked my very busy son to figure out for himself how much actual “free time” he has a week. He figured he only had a few spare hours a week. I asked him, “Are you ready to dedicate those spare hours to being someone’s boyfriend?” I told him that his rare spare time might not include being able to spontaneously hop online to play video games with his friends, which is his current preferred downtime activity. He wasn’t ready to make that swap. Smart choice too because I didn’t want him to say yes to being someone’s boyfriend who then ignored them in person or over text because he was “locked in with his boys.”

Second, they have to be able to communicate their feelings, wants, and frustrations effectively. This sounds like a tall order to ask of any teenager for any relationshipbelieve me, I know. The purpose of this is so they don’t get into relationships when suddenly they are having to consider someone else’s feelings, wants, and frustrations without being able to speak about their own calmly, confidently, and constructively.

There were so many times in those early relationships for me when I had no business putting up with things I put up with. I didn’t express myself, kept things in, was resentful, jealous, and insecure. Or, I felt pressured, overwhelmed, anxious, or sensitive. If I had my voice about me then, it could’ve been different. If I had the empowerment to use my voice and “I statements” (thank you, therapy) I might have felt stronger and stood up for myself. Part of all that self-advocacy comes with maturity, sure, but it should start earlier when the personal stakes are a lot smaller.

RELATED: It’s Hard To Watch Our Teens Start Dating—And Even Harder To See Their Hearts Break

These two guidelines are meant to help responsibly launch them into the complicated world of dating. These guidelines can give them a foundation to come back to so they can say, “Is this what I want? Do I have time and energy for this? Is there a trade-off I need to make that I will not regret making down the road?” And if they don’t, they can use their words and say “I feel like . . .” It isn’t easy to master these two things because as we know, a lot of adults still haven’t. It’s just a benchmark they can use to determine for themselves if this is making them happy.

Hopefully, this helps them go into the dating world feeling better armed. We’ll see when the time comes because it enviably will.

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Nickey J Dunn

I'm a full-time wife, mom of three, employee, OCD Irish Aries. I'm originally from the Pacific Northwest, now living in Phoenix. I'm passionate about my family, writing, and writing about my family. Mental health, anti-bullying, and body-positive advocate. 

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