Dating and Special Needs: Are You Ready?
Most parents of teens tell me they are not ready for their baby to date! No question, their teens are curious, developing sexually in a typical manner (thank you, puberty), wondering/anxious about dating, and are truly considering the possibility of dating. Before we get to the horrors and anxieties of dating, let’s recall some of your parenting successes.
As your child was growing up, you were required to develop skills around a variety of topics: bedtime routines, getting your child to eat more than five foods, going to pre-school, taking the bus to school, making friends, birthday parties, sleepovers, traveling by plane, and your teen driving. Perhaps you have not faced all of these challenges, but no doubt you have faced several. The challenges might have felt hard at the time, but in hindsight, I suspect these challenges suddenly pale in comparison to your feelings about The Dating Project. Let’s employ your past successes and simultaneously downgrade that dating challenge to a mere bump in the road.
If you were asked, “Do you want your child to have more friends?” you would say “YES!” But when we ask parents about their son or daughter dating, parents feel unprepared. Parents tell me that dating is more emotionally intense, their child might choose a bad partner, might have his/her heart broken, and so forth. All true, so let’s be sure you have some coping skills on board for the whole dating team.
Let’s start with the belief that your child has friendship skills. Your child can form friendships, start and maintain some form of conversation, has interests, and can ask others about their interests. These friendship skills are the baseline of dating. Because, what is dating, if not the simple equation Dating = Friendship + Romance.
Dating is a more intense form of friendship. If your household can manage friendship, you can build the skills for dating. That said, the feelings can be intense, so practice talking about intense feelings on a variety of topics before jumping to the dating game. Get some coping skills, develop a solid network of social support for teens and parents alike (parents, sibs, friends, teachers), and hop to!
Dating nuts and bolts
Using what you already know from friendship formation skills, your teen will be looking for a dating partner with similar interests and likely similar beliefs. When I ask teens where they might meet their dating partners, I get blank stares. But when I ask where they can meet friends, they produce a list: school, church, groups related to their hobbies and interests, and friends of friends. It is extremely rare to meet your dating partner in your living room, bedroom, or while playing video games. It is highly probable that your child will need to leave the house to find a dating partner. If your child is not already leaving the house regularly, dating can be a lovely incentive for getting your teen in with the community.
Attractive dating partners seem to have some common traits:
- reasonable hygiene
- clean clothes
- preferably a job
- something to talk about
Reasonable dating partners
- ask about others
- read social cues
- ask for clarification when lost in conversation
- text only twice without response before taking a break
(Don’t over-text without a response! It can constitute harassment.)
Exceptional dating partners
- include some level of creativity
- employ humor
- offer social/emotional reciprocity in conversation
- plan ahead
- remember important dates
- inquire about both important and daily events
- compliment others
These are all skills that all of us learn at some point, and your son or daughter will be no different. Generalize your previous learning experiences and strengths to the dating world; you can do this!
Keeping others safe
There are often unspoken expectations about dating, and these expectations can trip up some of my folks when considering dating. I have run in to some painful assumptions over the years about who pays for dates, the length of dates, and the frequency of dates. I’ve also heard some really uncomfortable comments about the quality of dating partners my folks seek. For example, I had a few college students who planned to date stunningly beautiful, model-quality women. Good to have goals, but unrealistic expectations can be a bummer when reality strikes.
Sometimes I hear some entitlement issues that creep in to dating conversations, and I use that word creep intentionally. I have certainly had difficult conversations with young men who are rigid, goal driven, and doggedly pursue their dating targets. The women feel like targets due to over-texting, feeling followed, and feeling trapped in their residences. On occasion, these women have (appropriately) contacted law enforcement.
- Keep your teen and others safe by exploring reasonable boundaries now, reviewing protocols for contacting others, and for dealing with potential rejection and hurt feelings.
- Sometimes women offer (repeated) subtle signals in an effort not to hurt the feelings of the pursuer, and these signals can be hard for some folks to read.
- Reviewing these social overtures early and often, looking to television/movies for examples, and looking in your friendship network for social patterns (highlighting the positive patterns) will be helpful.
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Keeping your teen safe
One thing we worry about for folks on the spectrum is vulnerability. We know that some folks on the spectrum can be too trusting, too giving, and may be at risk for exploitation. Even as I write this, I get goose bumps. You already know if your son or daughter demonstrates these characteristics.
Red flags around exploitation in dating include finances: your child paying for things, sending money to an online “girlfriend” or “boyfriend,” paying for expensive concerts, trips, etc. Other flags include excessive online relationships with limited in person contact, or lots of cancelled dates.
Another red flag that pops up frequently is related to age. I see lots of 18 year olds dating 30 year olds. (“But it’s legal!” doesn’t make my stomach feel better.) To keep expectations reasonable (also legal), I employ the “you+2” rule: your age plus or minus two years is about the right age for a dating partner. The you +2 rule means that as your child ages, so does the dating limit. Once upon a time my client was told that 16 was the legal age for dating. At the time, he was roughly 16 himself. Fast forward a few years: when he was in his 40s, asking teens if they were 16, the cops were called, and our team was asked to evaluate him as a possible sexual predator. Nobody ever updated the age rule for him. He was deeply disappointed (enraged, really) to learn that society rejects 40 year old men asking teens for dates at water parks; after all, he was “following the rule.” You+2 neatly sidesteps the static nature of the “must be legal” aspect and keeps things in the realm that society will consider acceptable.
So, are you ready for your son or daughter to date? Honestly, after that last paragraph, your answer might be “not today!” which would be better than “never.”
- Grapple with reality: your child is very likely going to date, and wrapping your head around that, gaining skill, and advanced planning will go a long way.
- Reflect on your previous successes, remember what was once a challenge and is now easy peasy, and get together with other parents who are also scared to death about their kids dating.
- Talk it out, find mentors, find some laughs, support each other, and then, yes, your child will date.
If you parent wisely, your child’s heart will experience the same things that the rest of us experience: your child will love whole heartedly and genuinely, and your child’s heart will occasionally be broken; when that happens, as the perfect parent, you will be right there, ready to provide the emotional support and get them back in to the dating game when the time is right. You can do this. Your child can date. And you will all survive this developmental phase.
Rachel Bédard is a licensed psychologist practicing in Fort Collins, Colorado. She uses a strengths based approach and her clients note she has the ability to help them laugh about even the most stressful or embarrassing events in life. Dr. Bédard has co-written two books with her favorite Speech Language Pathologist, Mallory Griffith. Their most recent book is You’ve Got This! The Journey from Middle School to College, As Told by Students on the Autism Spectrum and Their Parents. Learn more about Dr. Bédard and the collaborative books on her website.
This article was featured in Issue 79 – Managing Everyday Life