Is dating too young driving teens mad?

Studies show people who have adolescent relationships are more likely to grow up troubled.

Studies show people who have adolescent relationships are more likely to grow up troubled, says Geraldine Lynagh

'Boys were a major part of my life as a teen'

Sharon Kenny, Director of the Takes 2 Dating Agency

'It's not early sexuality that leads to drug-taking. It's boredom," insists Sharon Kenny, a mother of three from Rathmichael in Dublin. "Turning to drugs has nothing to do with the opposite sex," Sharon says. "These kids just have too much time on their hands during their Easter holidays."

Sharon has no concerns at all that allowing any of her sons to have a girlfriend in their teens will cause them to go off the rails. "I think they'll be more balanced when they're older because of the experience of dating when they're young."

Sharon runs a dating agency that specialises in helping singles over 30 meet a partner. Many of those she helps admit to being inexperienced when it comes to the opposite sex. "They lack confidence because of this and often end up drinking too much when they do go on a date," she says.

Partly for this reason, Sharon is firmly against single-sex schools and chooses not to send her children to one. She speaks from experience. "My parents actually took me out of a mixed school when I was 14 because I was so interested in boys," she reveals. "They thought I was being distracted by the guys, or maybe I was distracting them. I came home on the crossbar of a boy's bike one day and my mother thought I was being very forward," she laughs.

"Boys were a major part of my life when I was a teenager. It was a distraction from studying, but it was a just a normal part of growing up, really."

Sharon hated the all-girls school she was sent to. "The girls hung around in gangs and were more cliquish," she remembers. "In my old school, I had a bigger circle of friends and people were more open."

She also found the girls in her new school were much more socially awkward. "It was a completely different world," she continues.

"The girls didn't know how to react to guys, because they hadn't really been around them. For my debs I paired up five of the girls with dates as they didn't even have any guys as friends."

Far from having a negative effect on her life, Sharon believes her experience of dating young has made her a more rounded person.

She also asked her 16-year-old son what he made of the survey's findings. "He thought it was such rubbish," says Sharon.

"He's so focused on rugby he simply has no time to go off the rails. He has a lovely girlfriend and I'm completely happy for him to be dating at this stage of his life."

'Having boyfriends didn't turn me towards any illicit substances'

Sarah Webb, author

Sarah Webb, a mother of three from Dun Laoghaire, has happy memories of dating in her younger years. "Romance is slightly too grand a name for it, but I would have had boyfriends from the age of 13," she says. "My parents wouldn't particularly have encouraged it, but they wouldn't have minded. It was just a normal, average part of growing up."

She admits some of her early relationships were probably full of as much drama as you'd expect with teenagers. "I have all my teen diaries, which are fascinating," she laughs. "More so as I got older. Who to invite to your debs was a big thing. I had a very nice boyfriend at the time and that was great.

"But boys didn't take up any more of my head space than angst-ing over things like weight, skin, exams or friendships."

The suggestion that her early experiences with the opposite sex could have sent her spiralling into self-destruction baffles her.

"I don't understand this survey," she says. "I think going to college would be very difficult if you'd never had a relationship as a younger teenager. You'd have to learn so much.

"Having boyfriends as a teen certainly didn't turn me towards any illicit substances."

Sarah, a successful author of novels for adults, many of which have romantic themes, also loves writing for younger readers.

Her fifth book in the hugely popular Ask Amy Green series has just been published. Coincidentally the character Amy Green is also an early dater. At 13, she's going out with Seth (14), who she met on a beach.

Sarah agrees that writing for impressionable children carries certain responsibilities, but has no fears that she's encouraging any of them down the wrong track.

"I meet a lot of my readers because I spend a lot of time visiting schools. I really believe teenagers are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. They have a lot to deal with these days but so many of them are really nice young people and are very switched on."

Sex, drugs and teens

Sex, drugs and teens  Over seven years, researchers at the  University of Georgia followed 624  students through high school in  America. Every year the teenagers were  asked if they were dating anyone and  how often they had dabbled in drugs  and alcohol.  The study found that the students  who never — or hardly ever — dated  through high school had the best study  skills. The opposite was also true.

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