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Lead researcher Pamela Orinpas says that the study also found that these early daters were twice as likely to have consumed alcohol, smoked cigarettes, and used marijuana in middle school and high school, all risky behaviors. One of the biggest take-home messages from the study, Orinpas says, is that kids don’t have to be dating at that age.On the other hand, students who never or hardly ever dated consistently had the best study skills and demonstrated the least risky behavior. “They feel pressure to date—that’s the cool thing to do,” she says.And as any parent knows, relationships coupled with changes in adolescent development can impact not only kids’ ability to cope with these changes, but also how they perform in school and in other activities.

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One recent study from the University of Georgia evaluated the dating habits of 624 students in grades 6 through 12 from six Georgia school districts over a seven-year period.

Students who reported dating since middle school demonstrated the poorest study skills in the group and were four times more likely to drop out of high school.

Some relationships are very innocent and age-appropriate, some are in the middle and some are having sexual relations with a boyfriend or girlfriend then move on to the next,” Smith says. Parents need to have these conversations early and often with their children.

“Unfortunately, it seems we have more kids choosing to be involved in sexual relationships at a much earlier age.” So what can parents do to help their kids navigate the difficult waters of dating during middle school? “The first time that you talk with your child about relationships shouldn’t be when there is a big problem,” Corcoran says.

In fact, changes in an adolescent’s brain around puberty may contribute to an adolescent's seeking out romantic relationships and expanding them into sexual relationships, says B. Casey, Ph D, director of Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology. Adolescents don’t see dating that way, says Casey Corcoran, program director for Children & Youth at Futures Without Violence. The spectrum of informal to formal relationships is wide,” Corcoran says.

“Young people don’t have a lot of experience with relationships.One minute they are happy with life; the next, they hate everything.It is a peak time of physical growth for boys and girls. Their appearance begins to be important to them so they brush their teeth and shower more. These physical changes often drive behavior, especially when it comes to their burgeoning sexuality—so figuring out when and how to respond is like a high-wire act for parents. They respond more strongly to social rewards like a friend’s approval or disapproval.There might be something unhealthy or abusive going on in the relationship and they think that it is normal or even romantic.They just don’t have a lot to compare it to.” So within this murky relationship ecology you might hear your teen say, “I’m going out with…” or “Jared and Ashley are hooking up.” Of course, the language varies depending on who you talk to, but in most cases, these relationships last an average of a few weeks.They are, in essence, the first responders—the people who our children will look to before coming to us as parents, Corcoran says.

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