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Ask the Transracial Parenting Expert: Teens and Dating

“Our 14-year-old daughter is starting high school this fall. What might we expect in terms of dating?”

Welcome to the high school social scene! It will be a wonderful, and sometimes frightening, time for you and your daughter. You may quickly find that she, like most teens, is reluctant to talk about dating with you—after all, what do you know about it, anyway? You may never have a direct, matter-of-fact dialogue about the subject, but that shouldn’t keep you from broaching it.

Begin by letting her know you are open to hearing about the “social scene.” Listen, listen, listen, and remember the names she tells you. She’ll expect you to know whom she’s talking about in future conversations. If you minimize or laugh about what she says, she may not confide in you again.

Whom our kids may date
The diversity of your daughter’s school may determine whom and how often she dates. Adoptees who attended primarily white schools have told me they had lots of friends, but didn’t really date.

Boys who are seen as “different” are more likely to have problems dating, since it is still usually the boys who do the asking. A Korean teen I worked with was a popular athlete in a primarily white school. He dated throughout high school, until it was time for the prom. Casual dating had been OK, but once his prospective date’s father saw that he was Korean, it was a different story. The teen hadn’t seen this coming. The shock and humiliation were too strong for him to even tell his parents for several months. (At the time, they accepted his excuse that prom was too expensive.)

For girls, there are different considerations. In fact, a girl who seems “exotic” may attract too much attention. One of my clients, an adoptee from Peru, matured physically at an early age, and older boys at her school assumed that she was “easy”—a common stereotype about Latinas. In fact, she was insecure about her looks and emotionally immature. She had a difficult time understanding the attention she was getting. It was a learning experience for her parents, as well. Until then, they had not thought of their daughter as a Latina, and were surprised at the situation’s racial overtones.

In some ways, dating is a test of how open we, as parents, really are. Kids growing up in a more diverse area may date, but whom they date may not feel comfortable to you. Your daughter may decide she only wants to date boys of her own race, or those of any other race but white. “Liberal” adults can become surprisingly conservative when it comes to their child. This may be the first time you truly see her as a person of color.

Imagine that your daughter from Honduras decides to date a Mexican boy. When you meet his parents, they’re surprised that you are white. When you ask her about it, she shrugs and says, “It never came up.” It may not have, or you may be her “secret.” If she’s trying to fit in with a peer group of her own race who accept her at “face value,” having “geeky, white parents” may set her apart.

Talking and listening
Once you come to terms with your feelings about dating, start talking about it. The topic may come up naturally between mothers and daughters. Ask lighthearted questions, like, “Is that the boy everyone has a crush on?” Don’t push, and remember that timing is crucial. The time you spend in the car with your teen and her friends is a great chance to learn. As the driver, and an adult, you are virtually invisible to them. Don’t interrupt, just listen. Once you have deciphered the language, you can start discussing harder issues.

Being an outsider is something all teens fear. Whether it’s being of a different race, or having white parents, it may take time for your daughter to become comfortable with whatever sets her apart. If you keep an open mind, you and your teen can survive the next four years. Then you’ll just have college to worry about….

When talking to your teen about dating

  • Keep your sense of humor, and use your experiences only as comic relief, when appropriate.
  • Listen to and learn the “language” of your teen.
  • Encourage your teen to discuss, debate, and defend her ideas.
  • Be prepared to discuss, debate, and defend your ideas.
  • Start a dialogue, don’t “lay down the law.” You don’t want your child’s peers to be the only influential voices she hears.

Deborah Johnson is an adoptee from South Korea and a Minneapolis-based social worker with 25 years of experience working with adoptive families.

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