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If your middle school child wants to start dating, you might think twice. A recent study of teens living in northeast Georgia found that early dating interferes with school success and leads to other bad things.

The Healthy Teens Longitudinal Study followed over 600 students for seven years, from the sixth through 12th grades. It looked at frequency of dating in relationship to high school dropout rates and teacher ratings of study skills. The findings were published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.

Some students never or hardly ever dated from middle school through high school and these students had the best study skills. Other kids didn’t date much in middle school but dated frequently in high school. A larger-than-expected proportion of kids – 38% – dated frequently from sixth grade on.

Throughout the study, students who dated more were rated by teachers as having worse study skills. The earlier and more frequently a child dated, especially starting in middle school, the more likely he or she was to have used alcohol or drugs.

The lead researcher speculates that early dating is just one aspect of a pattern of high-risk behaviors. She also suggests that the emotional complications of dating, including feeling jealous, feeling anxious, and being rejected or jilted, distract children from studying and cause depressive symptoms. These may be more than a middle school student can handle.

If your middle school student shows no interest in dating, count yourself lucky and don’t make the mistake of thinking he or she is “behind.” It makes no sense to push dating in middle school or even in high school. There is plenty of time.

If your middle school child is already dating, how can you dial things back?

1. Don’t call it “dating.” Call it “hanging out” or something else that emphasizes the casual nature of this friendship. Avoid labeling your child’s significant other as a “girlfriend” or “boyfriend.” This is just a “friend.”

2. De-emphasize pairing-off. Don’t tell your child he and his friend make “a cute couple.” Don’t pose them for pictures together. Don’t engage in your child’s fantasies of love and marriage. Don’t let yourself become emotionally involved in your child’s romances.

3. Impose a curfew. Your middle school child and her friends should have an early curfew and you should always know where they’re going, how they’re getting there, and when they’ll be back. The more pest-y you can be the less glamorous dating will seem.

4. Talk about school, not about dates. Make certain that homework gets done, that your child is making good progress in his classes, and that he is serious about doing well.

5. Take seriously any hint your child has been introduced to drinking, smoking, or drug use. Early dating is part of a larger pattern. Any piece of the pattern can lead your child into trouble.

If your child is already dating and you think it’s too soon, say so. You might find that your child wants to quit but needs some support. Let your child know that it’s fine to go slow, to let himself be a kid as long as he likes, and to concentrate on his schoolwork.

Let your child know that dropping out of the dating scene – at any age – is fine with you.

©2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.