Teenagers in love can sometimes lead to unhealthy outcomes. Young people can become too exclusive when they pair up, cutting themselves off from friendship and support networks in ways that do not advance optimal development. Identity formation may be compromised if a teenager closes off developmental options through a partnership in which unhealthy living choices are made, or through early, unplanned parenthood.
Adolescents can be exposed to abusive and violent interactions or unwanted or coerced sexual activity within their romantic relationships (Mulford & Giordano, 2008). Aggression between romantic partners is common, with boys as likely to report abuse behaviour as girls. Collins et al.’s (2009) review indicates that, depending on the sample surveyed, 10 to 48 per cent of adolescents experience physical aggression and 25 to 50 per cent report psychological aggression from their romantic partner, including being sworn at, insulted and threatened. These days, aggression and bullying also occur online, for example, vengeful ex-partners have been known to share private photos or information on social media, causing embarrassment, humiliation or worse to the victim. Some teens appear to be more accepting of these situations than is healthy, for example interpreting jealousy and overly possessive behaviours as reflections of love.
Sexual coercion within romantic relationships is relatively common. A national survey of over 2000 Australian secondary students in Years 10, 11 and 12 found that among those who were sexually active, one-quarter had experienced unwanted sex (Mitchell et al., 2014). Reasons given for having sex when they did not want to included being too drunk to say no (49 per cent), frightened (28 per cent) or pressured by their partner (53 per cent). A US study of over 750 female students found almost 50 per cent had had at least one experience of unwanted sex, 70 per cent as part of a casual ‘hook-up’, and 57 per cent in a committed romantic relationship (Garcia et al., 2012). Regretted sex is also not an uncommon phenomenon among teenagers (e.g. Skinner et al., 2008).
Other challenges facing young people seeking or participating in romantic relationships include unrequited love and breaking up. In the case of unrequited love, fantasies about the other can be intense and obsessional, sometimes leading to misinterpretations that the feelings are reciprocated. In extreme cases this may result in maladjusted acting-out behaviours, such as aggression and stalking (Leitz & Theriot, 2005), but more commonly the distress is turned inwards, contributing to depression and low self-esteem, sometimes with the risk of self-harm.
Break-ups are a very common feature of adolescent romantic relationships, some of which last only a few weeks. Among a large sample of young people in their early twenties in Australia and Hong Kong, 80 per cent had experienced a break-up (Moore et al., 2012). The impact of splitting up may not be particularly severe or long-lasting, especially in the case of short-term liaisons. Nevertheless, some teenagers are more vulnerable than others. Several studies have shown romantic break-ups associated with depression, particularly among those who have already experienced mood disorders (Davila, 2008; Welsh et al., 2003). In our 2012 study, 40 per cent of participants felt very hurt following their relationship break-up, even though the majority of these dissolutions were self- or mutually initiated. Break-ups were more distressing if they were partner-initiated, and among adolescents with more ‘clingy’ relationship styles and greater tendencies toward negative mood.
Usually, time heals and experience teaches. Connolly and McIsaac (2009) researched break-ups among Canadian adolescents and found that the most common reasons given for ending a relationship related to unmet affiliation, intimacy, sexual or interdependence needs. In other words, young people were ‘moving on’ when their relationships were not fulfilling, and in the process, hopefully, were learning more about themselves and others. Over time, and through talking with others, including parents, peers and partners, adolescents can develop cognitive frameworks for better understanding the nature of intimate relationships and learn to cope with their ups and downs. One example comes from a study by Montgomery (2005) of nearly 500 young people aged 12 to 24 years, in which it was shown that older adolescents were less prone to romantic idealisation than younger ones. They were more realistic in their expectations of a romantic partner, so less liable to be disappointed. With experience, if all goes well, love becomes a little less blind.
With age and maturity come more realistic expectations and, hopefully, stronger capacities to make discerning partner choices, communicate and negotiate with partners and recover from relationship set backs and break ups. ‘Hopefully’ is the operative word here, because we know that people of any age can be undone by their heartbreaks and poor romantic choices. Nevertheless there are some protective factors likely to assist young people to negotiate first romantic relationships and survive break-ups.
Early sex education is important, ideally emanating from the home and supported by the school curriculum. It’s a bit late for ‘the talk’ on the eve of a young person’s first date. Education that goes beyond the mechanics of sex and emphasises mutual respect, decision-making and the meaning of consent should help young people to resist relationship bullying and sexual coercion. School and community-based programmes that focus on teaching the characteristics of healthy romantic relationships, recognising gender-based stereotypes, improving conflict-management and communication skills, and decreasing acceptance of partner violence can effectively reduce dating violence in adolescent relationships (Foshee et al., 1998). In addition, parental modelling of respectful interrelationships sets a pattern for young people to aim for in their own interactions.
Family and peer discussions that normalise teenage romantic relations – and breaking up – also help young people to frame their expectations and experiences in context. Some teenagers may need extra encouragement to maintain links with their friends and peer group, and to keep up their sports and hobbies when they are in the throes of an intense romance. But it is important that they do maintain these support links in order to help them resist the kinds of relationships that are too interdependent and have an obsessional quality. When this kind of relationship breaks up, there is a greater risk of distress and depression. Maintaining links with friends provides a distraction from troubles and a sounding board for adolescents to discuss their romantic successes, failures and hopes.
In today’s world, cyber safety is a key issue for all of us, but especially young people. Education about topics such as the potential dangers of sexting, online sexual predators and the distortion of romantic relationships depicted on pornography sites is essential for adolescents. Parental monitoring of online activity, especially among children and younger teenagers, may be advisable, and this requires that parents too become educated in new media – savvy about Facebook, Instagram, Tinder and the like. While adolescents need their privacy, it is important for parents to be watchful for warning signs of obsessive and secretive internet use. The heady emotions of falling in love can lead teenagers into unwise activity; the problem with the internet is that sexts and social media posts can come back to haunt them well after a relationship is over.
In summary, teenagers in love relationships – with all their ups and downs – have the capacity to be growth-promoting, confidence-boosting and healthy experiences that teach young people about the give and take of intimacy. They also provide traps for young players. And while we cannot (and should not) shield the adolescents
in our care from all the hurts and disappointments that life throws up, there are protective factors that limit the likelihood of serious harm from toxic partnerships or distressing break-ups. Watchful, kindly and respectful parenting, strong friendship networks and relationship-oriented sex education can all play their part in helping teenagers in love enjoy their romantic adventures and learn from them.
Source – https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-29/july/teenagers-love