Does age difference matter?

Several weeks ago a young woman contacted me. With her permission, I am posting her question:

Karen, there is this guy I like a lot and I think he likes me a lot. We work together and I really enjoy hanging out with him. I want to ask him out on a date since he is not making the first move. The problem is I am 16 about to turn 17 and he is 23 about to turn 24. So there is a 7 yr age difference. When I told mom I was thinking about asking him out she freaked out on me. I still really want to date him. Do you think 7 yrs is too much of an age difference? Thanks

And here is my response to her:

A big age difference is a complicated thing. 7 years difference is
clearly yucky in some cases (say, an 11 year old dating an 18 year old),
and is not a problem at all in others (say, a 40 year old dating a 47 year
old). The problem is that you and this guy are somewhere in between.

The other issue, of course, is the legal aspect. In many states a 23 (or
24) year old is not legally able to engage in sexual activity with a 16
(or 17) year old. And most dating relationships involve some sexual
contact. Seeing as you like this guy, I’m sure you wouldn’t want him to
be at risk of going to jail because of you. If your mom is dead-set
against your relationship with this man, than she can make the world very
hard on him.

However, that said, I am not one to freak out about a relationship just
because of an age difference. Too much has to do with who you are and who
he is!

So here’s what I would suggest: If you really like this guy, take the long
view of the relationship. Become better friends with him – hang out with
him outside of work – introduce him to your family and friends as just a
friend – meet his family and friends. But don’t come anywhere near a date
or a sexual relationship with him until (1) Your mom and your best friend
both really like him and both give you their seals of approval on starting
a relationship or (2) You turn 18, whichever happens first.

(Although I still think you should get your best friend’s approval even
after you’re 18! BFs can often see the men we like more clearly than we
can, and often have a better sense of whether he’d be OK to date.)

I’d love to know what you think of my advice, and what you decide to do!

She has since written me back and said that after careful consideration, she decided she liked my suggestions. She is going to invite her love-interest to her birthday party, where he can meet her mom and her friends.

I am delighted that this young woman felt that she wasn’t getting the support she wanted from her mother, but knew she needed help. It takes great inner-strength to know when you need advice and support and to be willing to seek it out.

One word of caution, however, to the parents out there: This young woman’s mother is uninterested and relatively unwilling to meet the young man. I am most disappointed by this turn of events, and would take her to task most severely if I knew her. Declining to meet your teenager’s friends and dates will not serve to keep them away from your child, it will only serve to keep you away from your child when they may need you the most.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. I think you gave great advice to the girl and I agree it’s sad the Mom doesn’t want to get involved. That being said I think that alot of girls mature faster than boys do. My now 16 yr old dates the 20 yr old friend of my oldest daughter’s boyfriend. They are happy and I love him like a son, so in my case it works, at least for me. Barb

  2. Hi Barb, I completely agree that there are times and people for whom an age difference works just fine – that’s why I didn’t caution her to forget the prospect all together. I do think it’s important to look for other’s approval of a boyfriend – especially when there’s something potentially problematic like a large age spread. It just re-affirms the appropriateness of the match. I’m so glad that your daughter has you for support in her romantic and sexual life. I’m sure it provides her with improved decision-making and readies her for healthy, life-long sexuality. Karen

  3. My personal life anecdotes affirm your advice, Karen. My husband and I are 7 years apart and in our case it was no big deal because when we met we were 22 and 29, but regardless of the age I would have been better off with him than with my ex-boyfriend who was 21 when I was 20, and I would have been WAY better off if I had listened to my best friend’s opinion.

  4. Here’s a funny story about age difference. When I was parenting an adolescent, she dated someone I thought was too old for her (7 year difference I think – she was a teenager, he was in his twenties – very close to the age range in the teen who asked the question of Dr Rayne). I ‘allowed’ it to continue because I recognized that my job was not to ‘allow’ or ‘disallow’ but to support my daughter in making thoughtful long range decisions and life choices and that involves going along with things I don’t necessarily support. There were lots of things I didn’t like about the guy, but it was easy to sum up just by discussing the age issue. Then (after a few years) she broke up with him and she got involved with someone who was 15 years older than her and guess what? In spite of my discomfort with the age difference, this guy was wonderful, they were wonderful together, and they are still together and (I think) still wonderful together. So, I’m really grateful I didn’t make a HUGE deal about the age difference – it was obviously just a symbol of what the real problems were with the other guy.

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