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Study finds teens who date early are more prone to risks

Parents need to strike a delicate balance with their teenage children as they enter an age when dating and temptations such as sex and drug use become prevalent, area experts said.

Parents also should start that balancing act earlier in their child’s life, according to a recent study on teen dating published in the Journal of Adolescence.

Researchers from York University in Toronto found that teens who entered into intimate relationships earlier in life are more susceptible to risks such as unsafe sex, alcohol and drug use, and delinquent behavior.

“If nobody is monitoring our children, they get into relationships that are unhealthy and stay in relationships that are unhealthy,” said Jane Farmer, executive director for Turning Point of McHenry County. “Parents have to play a role in teaching children how to date. Kids don’t automatically know what is appropriate and what is not.”

The study used data collected from 1996 to 2003 based on yearly surveys from about 700 students. The early bloomers, on average, began dating at 11.6 years compared with 14.9 years for late-dating teens.

The younger teens also reported twice as many acts deemed delinquent, including lying, cheating, picking fights, truancy and disobedience.

Although 11-and-a-half years old may seem young, it merely may be a number, said Farmer, whose domestic violence organization provides numerous services for teens.

Pre-adolescent teens often start feeling pressure to date, leading to temptations such as sex and alcohol use, she said. Parents need to realize those early pressures and stay involved with their child’s social life and teach responsible dating behavior.

“Communication is key,” Farmer said.

Parental involvement is especially important earlier in a teenager’s life, said Linda Bedsole, a clinical psychologist and owner of Creative Psychology Ltd. in Crystal Lake.

Teenagers have not fully matured and consequently are more apt to make bad judgment decisions, she said. Early dating only increases those risks, since it naturally leads to more social temptations.

“At age 17 or earlier, they certainly aren’t equipped brain-wise to make the right decisions for themselves,” Bedsole said. “That’s why they need their parents to help them.”

Aside from involvement and communication, parents also should be aware of a teenager’s friends and their parents’ approach to parenting, she said.

“They need the structure, and they need rules,” Bedsole said. “Even though kids may say they hate their parents, the parents’ job is to protect the kid until they are able to protect themselves.”

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