Romantic Relationships in Adolescence
Romantic relationships have much to teach adolescents about communication, emotion, empathy, identity, and (for some couples) sex. While these lessons can often provide a valuable foundation for long-term relationships in adulthood, they are also important contributors to growth, resilience, and happiness in the teen years.
In adolescence, having a romantic partner can boost one's confidence. When relationships are characterized by intimacy and good communication, youth are happier with themselves. Young people value the support, trust, and closeness they experience in romantic relationships. In fact, teens have more conflicts with their parents and peers than with romantic partners, though conflict within romantic relationships increases with age. Spending time together doing activities that both partners enjoy is very important to young couples. When this dimension of intimacy is missing, relationships often come to an end.
Relationships can support sexual development, an important part of growing to adulthood. Most adolescents believe that sex should occur within the context of a romantic relationship, and while not all relationships are sexual, most sexually active youth are monogamous. For more on romantic relationships and sexual experience, see Youth Statistics: Sexual Health.
Of course, relationships can have down sides too. Entering the world of relationships almost inevitably leads to the emotionally vulnerable experience of breaking up. For youth who are more sensitive to rejection, breaking up can trigger a dive into self-doubt and despair. Low-quality relationships that are characterized by a lack of trust, constant conflict, and dating violence can also leave young people prey to depression and anxiety.
Pre-teen dating, especially for girls and especially when sex is involved, is associated with depression. The relationship between early dating and depression is not entirely understood. Inequality within a relationship and poor treatment by a partner could well lead to depression, but the source of emotional difficulty could also come from outside the relationship. Very young girls who date often come from families that are struggling, and may begin relationships already vulnerable to depression. There is also some evidence that depression leads young girls to seek relationships.
Prevalence and Sequence
About one in three 13-year-olds has had a romantic relationship, and the number naturally increases with age: By age 17, most youth have had some experience with romantic relationships. Teens typically have more than one such relationship over the course of their adolescence, most often four.
Culture and sexual orientation have an impact on the timing and number of relationships. For example, Asian American teens tend to enter romantic relationships later than other teens; generally speaking, dating in adolescence is less accepted in Asian cultures. Sexual minority youth face hurdles in meeting potential partners. While many adolescents meet their romantic partners in school, sexual minority youth are less likely to find these social circles at school, given the level of discrimination they experience as well as the small numbers of youth who have come out.
Childhood and Early Teens
Most of a child's friends are likely to be of the same gender. Puberty launches intense interest in romantic relationships. In the pre- and early teen years, romance comes on the scene in the form of crushes, though there may be little contact with the object of infatuation. Those in their early teens — especially individuals with high social standing — typically socialize outside of school in mixed-gender groups. They then begin to pair off in brief dating relationships, often following in the footsteps of the most popular of their peers.
Middle and Late Teens
Young teens build confidence by dipping their toes in romantic waters while supported by strong friendships. In time, that confidence allows teens to resist peer opinion and choose romantic partners based on compatibility rather than social desirability. By high school, group activities that include couples are common, and in late adolescence couples spend less time with the peer group and more time together, while continuing to maintain social networks.
The average duration of adolescent romantic relationships increases throughout the teen years. By age 16 youth report that relationships typically last for six months, and by 18 relationships often last a year or more, with Black teens sustaining longer relationships than other racial or ethnic groups.
Influences on Relationship Quality
In adolescence, when relationships are new, young people's experiences are shaped in part by family and peers.
Parents and Family
The level of closeness and support adolescents have experienced with their parents and siblings influences the quality of their romantic relationships. If communication between parents and children is positive and supportive in early adolescence, youth are more likely to interact positively with romantic partners in late adolescence. How parents model conflict also affects their children's relationships. Parental divorce alters young people's views of commitment and the level of intimacy they experience in their own relationships. Experience of serious conflict within marriage can also make a child more likely to perpetrate or be victimized by dating violence, as can physical and sexual abuse in childhood.
Friends and Peers
Peer relationships are influential as well. To some extent, the quality of romantic relationships mirrors that of friendships: Teens who have close and trusting friendships are likely to have close and trusting romantic relationships, while those who tend toward hostility and aggression with friends and peers will bring these tendencies into relationships. Similarly, the level of relational skills that youth develop within friendship — such as expressing differing points of view and resolving conflicts — are reflected in their romantic relationships.
Perceived social norms also affect the quality of relationships. For example, boys are more likely to be aggressive romantic partners if they believe that aggression is common among their peers. Having sexually experienced and/or older friends makes a youth more likely to begin having sex; sexual decision-making may be influenced to some extent by the expectation of approval or disapproval from peers.
Supporting Healthy Relationships: Families
Parents can improve the odds that their children will have positive romantic relationships by using an "authoritative" (as opposed to authoritarian or permissive) parenting style: keeping informed and setting limits, but not attempting to completely control an adolescent's dating life. While monitoring children's activities is important, parents should also learn to respect boundaries with their children. When parents repeatedly violate a young adolescent's boundaries, by late adolescence their child is more likely to perpetrate or be victimized by violence within a romantic relationship. Families can also support healthy relationships by accepting LGBTQ identities and treating their children's same-sex, transgender, or non-binary romantic partners as they do cisgender, opposite-sex partners. Lesbian, gay, and transgender youth may need adult support in finding safe venues to meet and socialize.
Families can also support healthy relationships by accepting non-heterosexual orientations and treating their children's same-sex romantic partners as they do opposite-sex partners. Lesbian and gay youth may need adult support in finding safe venues to meet and socialize.
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