Think before you sext: the experts’ guide to teen dating | Dating

 

Take things offline

Teen relationships often start online, so how do you progress to a real-world date? The first step is to make your chat more meaningful, says Charlene Douglas, an intimacy coach and sexual health educator. “Online, young people can banter for hours, so try to move the conversation on. Rather than just talking about celebs, or who said what at school, bring those situations back to what you have in common.”

Then introduce voice messaging and video calls, “to see if you really like the vibe of a person and to check they’re human”, says Hardeep Dhadda, presenter of the relationships podcast Thank You, Next. Her co-presenter, Raj Pander, suggests watching something at the same time on Netflix. Then: “Once you know you like and trust this person enough to go on a real-life date – ask them.”

Put safety first

Be sure they are who they say they are (Pander suggests checking tagged pics on Instagram), and meet in a public place, telling someone when and where you’re meeting. Pander says: “Not everyone is a serial killer, but it’s good practice to act as if they could be.”

Manage your emotions

Butterflies in your stomach? Heart racing? “It’s normal to feel that way,” says Chloe Goddard McLoughlin, a psychotherapist and relationship counsellor. “Just tell the other person that you’re nervous, because I guarantee they will be as well.”

Teen couple in a park
If you’re nervous, say so. Photograph: Serena Brown/The Guardian

Pander, who is 37 and a self-confessed shy dater, says: “I plan a phone call with a friend before so they can prep me. We always have a contingency plan if anything gets weird, so if I text them they’ll call me so I can pretend there’s an emergency and leave.”

Be chatty

“Try to keep it light and talk about things you’re passionate about, as when you do that, your whole energy lights up,” says Douglas. Dhadda agrees: “If you like something – animals, sustainable fashion or Billie Eilish – let your date know. How can someone get to know you if you’re holding back or pretending to be someone else?” But there are no-nos: “If someone brought up sex on a first date, I’d be put off.”

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Know how to end a date

“Be polite,” says Dhadda. “Consider their feelings, as they may have had the best time ever.” Pander agrees: “Tell them you had fun – even if you didn’t – look at the time and say you’d better be off.” If they message asking to meet again, be honest but respectful. Douglas recommends replying: “You’re a great person but I just don’t think we’re suited.”

Don’t sweat your first kiss

“It’s part of our cultural mythology that the first kiss is the best, but for most people it’s pretty average, so don’t sweat it,” says Goddard McLoughlin. Remember, a kiss should only happen when you’re both comfortable and have given consent. “It may take the sexiness away, but saying ‘can I kiss you?’ means you have permission and haven’t misread signals,” says Douglas.

Teens' hands sitting on a wall
Don’t rush into changing your profile pic or online status. Photograph: Serena Brown/The Guardian

Think about when to make things official

When do you change your status or update your profile pic to a cute couple selfie? For Pander, once you’re sure you like and trust the person, you can ask what they think about making things official. But she warns: “Do you really need them in your profile pics or online status? You’re your own person: don’t let your relationship take over your identity.”

Work out if you’re ready to have sex

“First, know the facts about sex, intimacy and pleasure,” says Douglas. “Speak to a trusted older family member, whether that’s a sister or an aunt. Don’t feel pressured into anything you don’t feel comfortable with. Douglas says of her work at a girls’ school: “A lot of the girls felt they should lose their virginity on their 16th birthday. Sometimes they regretted it because it wasn’t pleasurable or they felt used. Just because the law says you’re ‘of age’ doesn’t mean you have to do anything.”

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Learn how to boost your confidence

Just over half of 11- to 16-year-olds worry often about how they look, but try shifting your focus. “Imagine the most confident version of yourself,” says Natasha Devon, who gives talks at schools and universities on mental health and body image. “Think about how you stand, move and feel when you’re relaxed and self-assured, and emulate that. When we look at someone, we see them as a whole package.”

Stay aware of consent

“People think if they’ve said yes once, they can’t change their mind,” says Goddard McLoughlin. “But you have the right to say no at any point.” Douglas adds: “If you’ve said yes to a kiss, you have the right to say, midway through, ‘I want to stop.’ Similarly, if you feel ready for sex but when it comes down to it you don’t want to do it, that needs to be respected.” If you’re on the receiving end of a no, don’t feel like a horrible person, says Douglas. “Remind yourself it’s a positive thing your partner is able to share this.”

Think before you sext

A recent Ofsted report found that 80% of girls feel under pressure to send sexual images. Douglas says: “Once you send a picture, you can’t control where it goes, who sees it, or whether it’s shared. If it’s shared on the internet, it can stay there for ever.”

Teens sharing a frothy coffee
Remember, dating should be fun. Photograph: Serena Brown/The Guardian

Understand how to handle rejection

If you’ve been rejected, Douglas says, “allow yourself to feel that pain. Be around people who are positive and who love you, and do one good thing for yourself every day.” Goddard McLoughlin suggests shifting your perspective: “Often it’s about the other person, not you.”

Avoid being spooked by ghosting

For Pander, ghosting is evidence that someone isn’t worth your precious energy. If someone suddenly cuts you off, it means they “weren’t brave enough to have an honest conversation with you. You deserve better.” Despite the crushing pain, reframe it as a lesson, says Douglas. “It teaches you the kind of person you want to be with, how you want to be treated and how you want to feel in a relationship. In future you won’t even remember the person’s name. I say that from experience.”

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Don’t use porn to educate yourself

Recent research found that 45% of young people who watched porn did so, in part, to “learn” about sex, but Douglas says: “Run a mile when it comes to being educated from porn, because it isn’t an honest representation.” If you feel clueless in the bedroom, she recommends educational websites around intimacy, like climax.com or OMGYes. If you must watch porn, use the ethical kind, says Douglas: “The site makelovenotporn.tv is diverse, real and respectful. You’ll see consent, and there are elements about the importance of touch, foreplay and eye contact.” You will also see different races and sexualities, and real bodies.

… and don’t let Covid get you down

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make dating even more stressful. But according to Dr Christian Jessen, life must go on: “If a young person asked me if they should go on a first date, I would say yes. Teenagers need to carry on having as normal a life as possible.” To mask or not to mask? Jessen says: “Follow the guidelines of wherever you are.” Maybe pop it in a message to your date beforehand, so there’s no surprises. Want to ask about someone’s vaccination status? Jessen says go for it: “It encourages more adult conversations down the line about things like STIs.”

Don’t get too fixated on pandemic fears, he adds. “It’s hard to separate dating anxiety from Covid anxiety, but don’t hide behind Covid as an excuse not to date. If you’re young, generally fit and healthy, meeting one person doesn’t put you at high risk – and meeting them outdoors even less so.”

And remember, dating should be fun …

It’s about meeting different people, connecting with them and figuring out what makes you tick. “There will be firsts, there will be laughs and there might be a few tears, but try to shake off any pressure and have fun,” says Pander. “I laugh at my teen dating experiences now – and I’m sure you will, too.”

Styling by Peter Bevan

Models wear: blue hoodie, Martine Rose; colourblock shirt and shorts, Ahluwalia; locket necklace and bracelet, Monica Vinader; rings, pawnlondon.com; full tracksuit, Wales Bonner by Matches Fashion; tracksuit and track jacket, House of Sunny

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