You are in LOVE. Well...at least you're in really deep LIKE. You have met the most amazing person, and you totally NEED to go out with them.
Hold on for a second. Do your parents even allow you to go out and "date?" Are you ready to handle the pressures of hanging out -- and possibly hooking up -- with someone?
Before you ask out the object of your affection, or say, "yes" to someone who's interested in you, go through this checklist of questions to make sure you're ready to handle whatever might happen in your new relationship.
Question One: Are You Ready to Go Out?
About half of 15- and 16-year-olds say they've dated, but just because you've reached a certain age doesn't really mean you're ready to date.
"I think people are ready at different times," says L. Kris Gowen, PhD, EdM, a researcher in sexual and mental health at the Portland State University School of Social Work. She's also written a book about sexuality for teens, called Sexual Decisions: The Ultimate Teen Guide.
Gowen says being ready to go out has more to do with your maturity than your age.
How do you know if you're mature enough? For one thing, could you tell the person you're dating how far you're willing to take the relationship, and what your sexual boundaries are?
"Have you had a talk with yourself to say, 'Am I comfortable with kissing somebody, holding their hand, undressing to a certain level, caressing?'" Gown says.
These are decisions you need to make ahead of time -- not when you're in the middle of a make-out session and your date is pressuring you to go further. Once you know your limits, you need to be strong and secure enough to say "no" or "stop" if things are getting too hot and heavy.
Are you also mature enough to handle the rejection that can come in a relationship? "Any time you open yourself to somebody, whether it's emotionally or physically, and then they reject you -- it's going to hurt," Gowen says.
What would happen if you got dumped? Could you handle it -- or would you fall apart? On the flip side, if you were the one having to do the breaking up, could you do it in a firm, but kind way?
Don't base your readiness to date on what your friends are doing. Even if it seems like everyone around you has paired off, you want to go out with someone for the right reason -- because you really like that person. "The motivation to be drawn to this person is based on who they are as an individual ... not because you're the only person in your group who doesn't have a special someone," Gowen says.
Question Two: Do You Really Like This Person?
Now focus on the person you like. Why do you like them? Is it because they are good looking? If so, that's not enough.
"You have to share some common interests," Gowen says. You also want to be with someone who will treat you right, she says.
How can you tell? One clue is the way they treat their friends, teachers, and parents.
If you're not totally sure about this person, ask yourself if it's worth getting into the relationship. Also get your friends' input about whether the person is worth your time.
Question Three: Are They Right for You?
One very important question you need to ask yourself is whether this person is safe for you to date.
Girls who've set their sights on older guys, beware. Dating a guy who's in high school when you're still in middle school, or who's a senior when you're still a freshman might seem cool, but it could get you into a lot of trouble.
"Just because a girl looks like she's 16 when she's only 11, it doesn't mean that psychologically or emotionally she's ready to date older boys... they are so much more skilled at this dating game than she would be, and they can manipulate her and hurt her," says Laura Choate, EdD, a licensed professional counselor, associate professor of counselor education at Louisiana State University, and author of the book, Girls' and Women's Wellness: Contemporary Counseling Issues and Interventions.
"There's a big difference between a seventh-grader and a ninth-grader when it comes to experimentation," Gowen says. By the time they're in high school, guys may have gone a lot further than you're ready to go.
In fact, Gowen did a study of girls who had older boyfriends, and she found that freshmen girls who dated junior or senior boys were more likely to go further, and to be forced into doing things they didn't want to do.
A good rule of thumb is not to date anyone who is more than one grade ahead of you, Choate says.
Question Four: Will My Parents Let Me Go Out?
This is the all-important question, because if your parents say "no," you're not going to get very far.
It could be because they're very conservative, or because they remember how they acted during their own teen years. Whatever the reason, your parents might not want you to go out with anyone until you reach a certain age. Depending on how easygoing or strict your parents are, that age could be as young as 13 or 14, or as old as 18.
If you really want to be with this person and your parents won't give in, try talking to them about it. Don't start off with a confrontational attitude -- "Why won't you let me date? You're so mean!" Make it a conversation.
Gowen suggests trying to show your parents how mature and responsible you are. Remind them about the chores you've done around the house and how well you've been keeping up with your schoolwork. Tell your parents all the reasons why you like this person and want to go out with them -- because they're kind, smart, and fun to be around ("because they're hot" isn't a legitimate reason, so don't even try it).
See if you can work out a deal where you ease into dating gradually. "A great way to start the whole dating scene is by hanging out in groups with parental supervision," Choate says. "Then the next step might be some gradual couple time, but still with parental supervision."
Over time, you can ask for more and more one-on-one time with this person, proving with each step that you are mature enough to handle the added freedom.
When You Start Dating
Once you -- and your parents -- feel ready and you've found someone you like and who likes you, you can start going out. But when you begin any new relationship, take it slow.
"Don't be alone with a person you don't know very well until you feel more comfortable with that person," Choate says. "Start gradually. Know exactly where you're going, what's happening every step of the way. You don't have to let the other person be in control of the date."
Abuse is more common in teen relationships than you might think. One out of every four teens has been verbally, physically, emotionally, or sexually abused by the person they're dating, according to the CDC.
ANY TIME someone you're dating demeans you, forces you to do something you don't want to do, or hits you -- get out of that relationship. Right away. Get help from an adult you trust.
Finally, never get so wrapped up in another person that you forget who you are. By dressing sexy to impress your date or acting in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, you lose your sense of self.
Remember that the most important person in the relationship isn't the one you're dating -- it's you.