Recently I was driving my 14-year-old son and his friends to soccer practice. In the backseat they were chattering away, and in the front seat, I was the proverbial fly on the wall. They were laughing about another friend who was “dating” a girl. “Did you hear that Jared is dating Ashley? He really likes her,” one of them said. “Yeah, they have been hooking up for a while.” Dating? Hooking up? I wondered how they could be talking about these things when they couldn’t even drive a car or pay for the movies. It got me wondering what exactly “dating” means to middle schoolers, and whether it’s a good idea at that age.

As many parents know, adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 can be the most perplexing and frustrating humans on the planet. One minute they are happy with life; the next, they hate everything. It is a peak time of physical growth for boys and girls. They eat and sleep a lot. Their appearance begins to be important to them so they brush their teeth and shower more. They may be developing crushes on classmates. These physical changes often drive behavior, especially when it comes to their burgeoning sexuality—so figuring out when and how to respond is like a high-wire act for parents.

One reason that adolescence is such a complicated time is because the brain is still changing. As well, teens weigh risk vs. reward differently and more highly than adults. They respond more strongly to social rewards like a friend’s approval or disapproval. And most teens overwhelmingly prefer the company of their friends over their parents. So coupling an adolescent’s risk-taking with his love for reward plus the innate need to establish his own sexual identity can mean that previously innocuous behavior can lead, if unchecked, to high-risk activities. In fact, changes in an adolescent’s brain around puberty may contribute to an adolescent's seeking out romantic relationships and expanding them into sexual relationships, says B.J. Casey, PhD, director of Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology. Phew, no wonder adolescence is so worrisome.

What Does “Dating” Even Mean?

So what is dating in middle school like? While most people think of dating as getting in the car, picking someone up, and taking them to the movies or dinner, that’s an adult’s definition. Adolescents don’t see dating that way, says Casey Corcoran, program director for Children & Youth at Futures Without Violence. “There is a whole ecology of teen relationships. The spectrum of informal to formal relationships is wide,” Corcoran says. “Young people don’t have a lot of experience with relationships. There might be something unhealthy or abusive going on in the relationship and they think that it is normal or even romantic. They just don’t have a lot to compare it to.”

So within this murky relationship ecology you might hear your teen say, “I’m going out with…” or “Jared and Ashley are hooking up.” Of course, the language varies depending on who you talk to, but in most cases, these relationships last an average of a few weeks. And as any parent knows, relationships coupled with changes in adolescent development can impact not only kids’ ability to cope with these changes, but also how they perform in school and in other activities. So keeping watch for these changes can be really critical for parents.

Are Kids Who Date at Greater Risk?

One recent study from the University of Georgia evaluated the dating habits of 624 students in grades 6 through 12 from six Georgia school districts over a seven-year period. Students who reported dating since middle school demonstrated the poorest study skills in the group and were four times more likely to drop out of high school. Lead researcher Pamela Orinpas says that the study also found that these early daters were twice as likely to have consumed alcohol, smoked cigarettes, and used marijuana in middle school and high school, all risky behaviors. On the other hand, students who never or hardly ever dated consistently had the best study skills and demonstrated the least risky behavior.

What’s more, the students who dated since middle school also experienced greater risk for depression because of the impact of romantic breakups. Orinpas believes that the stresses of middle school dating are similar to those of coworkers dating and breaking up: “Being in middle school and high school, you sit with the same person from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day. So many of these relationships last a week or three weeks. They are short then finished. Then the boyfriend is dating someone else. In that sense, it can get depressing,” she says.

One of the biggest take-home messages from the study, Orinpas says, is that kids don’t have to be dating at that age. “They feel pressure to date—that’s the cool thing to do,” she says. “In school they should not have to focus on dating, but on promoting friendships and healthy relationships.”

Kelly Smith, a counselor at Willowcreek Middle School in Portage, Ind., agrees, saying that she spends much of her time dealing with these social and emotional issues.

“At this level we deal a lot with friendship issues, but at the core, it is typically about the romantic relationships intertwined. Some relationships are very innocent and age-appropriate, some are in the middle and some are having sexual relations with a boyfriend or girlfriend then move on to the next,” Smith says. “Unfortunately, it seems we have more kids choosing to be involved in sexual relationships at a much earlier age.”

So what can parents do to help their kids navigate the difficult waters of dating during middle school? Here are some tips.

Have a conversation about dating. Parents need to have these conversations early and often with their children. “The first time that you talk with your child about relationships shouldn’t be when there is a big problem,” Corcoran says. “It needs to be an ongoing regular conversation.”

Guide, don’t control. The key is to guide, not control, your children in appropriate ways to interact with other kids, says Patricia Nan Anderson, EdD, educational psychologist and author of Parenting: A Field Guide. “Part of learning how to manage one’s own affairs includes making decisions so have a heart to heart with your child,” she says.

Also work to compromise on limits to social interactions which might include curfew, adult supervision, acceptable locations, and what is meant by “dating,” then follow through, says Barbara Greenberg, a teen and adolescent psychologist.

Monitor digital activity. There’s no doubt that electronic influence on dating is pervasive. So it’s important to let your child know that digital devices and social networking access are privileges that they need to respect, and to be clear about your expectations for behavior on the Internet and with texting. Here, parents are a critical factor, says Greenberg: “Parents need to know that they should monitor their kid’s activities and their activity on the Internet. They should find out who they are spending their time with, check their Facebook page and monitor their activity on their Facebook page.”

Peer groups: the first responders. Peer groups play an enormous role in preventing violence and promoting healthy teen relationships. They are, in essence, the first responders—the people who our children will look to before coming to us as parents, Corcoran says. “We need to treat young people as individuals who will be committed to engaging in healthy relationships. We need to create clusters of young people that are committed to that because that is their support system.”

Practice makes perfect. Have guided conversations with your kids about dating. Ask them questions like “What do you expect in a relationship?” “How do you want to be treated?” and “How do you plan to treat others in a relationship?” These guided conversations, says Corcoran, are like prethinking: “We need to give them the skills and let them practice before there is a big problem. So kids need to know the words. They need to practice these conversations.”

Spend time with your kids. Finally, always remember to set aside time to spend with your children, even if they don’t seem to want to spend it with you. “A parent who regularly spends time with their teen can pick up on changes in mood or dress that you might not pick up on when you are just passing each other in the morning,” Corcoran says. “I am a big proponent of family meals. Spending time with your kids really matters.”

And don’t worry if you think that they are not listening to you, Corcoran says. “Studies show that even when young people are not engaging in conversation with their parents, they are, in fact, listening,” he says. “But we need to be honest as parents. Sometimes we need to listen more than talk in order to hear what our kids are actually trying to tell us.”

Rebecca A. Hill is a freelance writer who crafts articles on education, literacy, and reading issues. She has been published in a variety of national education magazines and holds a master’s degree in library and information sciences from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. She lives in Zionsville, Ind., with her two boys and husband.