If you are a parent of a daughter, undoubtedly one of the toughest times you will ever have to go through surround those days where she begins dating, and learning the lessons that she must from having her first romantic interests. No other period when raising a girl challenges as much as this one; let’s be honest, as tough as toilet training, helping her after scraping a knee or two, or having discussions about challenging friendships might be, nothing presents a minefield of trials and emotions quite like her first experiences in dating. As the father of a young daughter myself, though one who is more interested in fairies and plastic jewelry than boys, I can already see the interesting times ahead for her.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the presence of few universally-accepted rules and guidelines for parents to follow here. In addition, the early to mid-teens also happen to represent the time when a need for independence and a wish for Mom and Dad to just go away at times runs strongest. By the same token, there is no period in a teenage girl’s life when some sort of parental presence and guidance is more important than when she starts venturing into the world of relationships with boys. Most parents understand this instinctively. Unfortunately, there is also a tendency among many parents to become too heavy-handed in their approach – let me explain what I mean by this observation.

As parents, we have a natural protective instinct that is with us from day one with our kids. We are more than ready to respond clearly and even forcefully when we perceive a threat to our children, and this helps protect them and keep them healthy and cared-for over the formative early years. When boys become less peers in class, and start to potentially carry the hazard of introducing daughters to romantic situations of many kinds, it can trigger this protective instinct, which can be both good and bad. Good because all girls need to feel protected, and have someone who will look out for them and debrief new situations as needed. Bad because parents can be tempted to forcefully whisk their girls back into the “bubble” of home, through mandating early curfews and refusing permission for them to venture out when boys may be present.

It is these “bad” measures which can backfire, despite our best intentions, as they can break down trust and forever harm parental relationships when they are needed most by girls. When that relationship is damaged, it can actually reduce a daughter’s willingness to heed the words and accept the protection of well-meaning parents. Why? When the time is right (and probably before they are 40 years old!), they need to have their growing sense of independence honoured, and be permitted on some level to explore this new kind of relationship with boys where curiosity will soon grow to the point of being undeniable. A forceful (and often fear-based) response to deny a young woman these opportunities to grow will seldom have the desired healthy effect, and instead result in angry words, hurt feelings, or even a girl who learns to be afraid of the outside world, trusting no one.

A more effective solution may be to channel the important protective instinct in a different way. Rather than impose restrictions unilaterally, and risk a breaking of the parent/daughter relationship: being interested, asking insightful questions, and listening to answers without giving snap judgment can keep the crucial lines of communication open on this topic with a daughter. Chances are good that she will have questions she needs answers to, and as long as there is a reasonably positive connection in place, will often be very open to engaging in conversation about “boys” with one or both parents. She wants and needs guidance, and if trust is present, then the same people who comforted her after those scraped knees or losing a big soccer game will also be invited to help her process through one of the most important challenges in the first 20 years of her life.

So when is a young woman old enough to start dating? This is of course a subjective question which I will not attempt to answer with a universally acceptable rule. Let me leave you instead with wisdom I heard many years ago from a former teaching colleague, and mother of two daughters, for your own consideration:

“When you are old enough to say no to your friends, you are old enough to date.”