A recent study from the University of Georgia conducted by Pamela Orpinas and colleagues and published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence suggests that the answer may be no. Perhaps middle school and dating should be mutually exclusive. In their very carefully conducted study Orpinas and colleagues followed the same group of 624 kids as they traveled from 6th grade to their senior year of high school. I love these studies that follow the same group of kids over time. It really gives us an opportunity to see how earlier behaviors in life are associated with later behaviors. In my mind, this is the best sort of research that there is.
The findings were at the very least quite alarming and you may want to read on to find out why. The students who began dating early, in middle school that is, were significantly more likely to eventually drop out of school, have worse study skills and to use marijuana and alcohol in high school than their later dating peers.
I have to tell you that the results of this study do not surprise me. There are several possible explanations of why early dating may lead to other subsequent problematic behaviors. It may be that the early daters are greater risk takers in general. On the other hand, dating is hard and complicated for individuals of any age so these young middle schoolers may be particularly ill-equipped to deal with dating, break-ups and all of the emotional complications associated with intimate relationships. Another possibility is that these early daters get distracted at an early age, develop a habit of always being in a relationship and lose focus on how to handle all aspects of life in a healthy manner. The most likely explanation for why early dating is associated with later difficulties is likely to be a confluence of the factors I mentioned above.
Parents need to be aware of the relationship between early dating and subsequent problems and help their kids.
My suggestions include:
1. Watching your kids and making sure that their emotional lives aren't centered exclusively around dating relationships.
2. Creating opportunities for your middle schoolers to get their affiliative needs met from a variety of sources including friends, family etc.
3. Teach them how to deal with stress effectively so they learn to deal with all of life's stressors including relationships.
4. Know that developing good study habits is crucial and help them with this aspect of school,
5. Try to help them develop a balanced life.