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The findings, says the study by Valerie Simon, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Wayne State University, Detroit, and others, suggest "romantic partners are unique and significant" influences in kids' lives.

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Thomas was able, during a relaxed, low-key conversation in a restaurant, "to help him see that he was already in pain" and would be hurting either way, she says.

He soon made the tough decision to break up and "gained some maturity along the way," she says.

Finally, in a finding termed "striking" by researchers, romantic relationships as early as middle school seem to have a formative influence on teens' social and emotional health.

In a study of 78 middle-school students published last year in Child Development, researchers rated teens and their boyfriends or girlfriends on depressive symptoms, and on peer reports of popularity, aggression, fighting and victimization via bullying or teasing; 11 months later, they rated the teens and their partners again.

Boys and girls who start dating at a young age are disrupting the typical pattern of teenage romantic development and may have more school and behavioral problems than their peers, suggests a Canadian study to be published in the December issue of the Journal of Adolescence.

Interest in the opposite sex usually begins at puberty and gradually evolves into casual interactions, followed by group-based dating by the midteens, previous...

Connecting with a teen in this way can take a lot of relaxed down-time together, so you're available when he or she is in the mood to talk.

When Mark Nagelsmith noticed that his 16-year-old son seemed to communicate with girls exclusively on Facebook or via text message, he pondered how to help him "work up the courage to actually to go up to a real girl and start talking" face-to-face. Nagelsmith makes a point of spending lots of time practicing baseball with his son; "he really opens up to talk when we're just out fooling around, tossing the ball," says the Glens Falls, N. During one of these sessions he raised the question, "Do you ever actually talk to these girls? Nagelsmith has since seen him inviting girls to their house and really "making an effort to keep the conversation going," he says. Nagelsmith think "maybe he is." Starting healthy new dating relationships also serves as a signal of kids' overall readiness to launch from the parental nest.

And while parents' dating advice may seem about as welcomed by teens as the swine flu, the research suggests the opposite—that young people not only value parental input, but tend to have healthier relationships when they receive parental advice.

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