Partly emotional, partly biochemical, young love is an important part of adolescent development. Yet teen relationships often look far different than adult relationships. Teen daters are simultaneously coping with a rush of hormones, the search for a personal identity, and changing expectations in all aspects of their lives. These factors, coupled with a lack of the life experience needed to put relationships into perspective, create romances that appear to teeter between obsession and rejection.
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Teen and Young Adult Psychosocial Development
According to developmental theorist Erik Erikson, the central crisis for the teen years is the search for a personal identity. In young adulthood, the crisis shifts to the search for a fulfilling intimate relationship. Erikson speculated that true intimacy requires both partners to have a solid sense of self and to be willing to merge their individual identities for the good of the partnership. In an article for “Psychology Today,” psychologist Carl Pickhardt suggests that teen crushes are based largely on elaborate fantasies that the admirer projects onto the object of admiration. The crush, and ultimately the relationship, is more a reflection of the partners’ individual goals and desires.
The Three C’s
Love can ultimately be broken down into three components, sometimes known as the three C’s, according to a 2012 article at PsychologyToday.com. Chemistry is the initial rush of attraction. It is largely biochemical and accounts for the butterflies and nervous behavior around the object of affection. Closeness is the bond of trust that allows partners to share secrets and feel secure in each other’s support. Commitment occurs when two people decide to stick together even when the relationship gets tough. Chemistry is inevitable during the teen years, but closeness and commitment are more advanced skills. When discussing true intimacy, some experts replace chemistry with communication, arguably a more important trait for lifetime relationships.
Practice Relationships or Real Love?
Some experts believe that teens are capable of developing lasting love relationships. For “Teenagers in Love,” researcher Nancy Kalish studied first loves in historical and modern eras. She points out that through World War II, most teenagers got married shortly after high school. Since then, the average age of first marriage has climbed while the average age of puberty has dropped. Today’s teens see dating as more about having fun than choosing a life partner, but it is not uncommon for people to miss their first love. Some spend their entire lives wondering what could have been. In a study of 1,600 adults ages 18 through 92, a quarter would happily return to their first love. Teen relationships might be different than adult relationships, but they are not necessarily any less real.
Teen Dating Violence
According to StayTeen.org, roughly one in four teens have been genuinely afraid of physical abuse from a partner. The same percentage felt that a partner had pressured them to avoid spending time with friends or family, and nearly as many had felt pressure to perform sexually. Teen dating abuse takes many forms, from subtle pressure to physical attacks. Many teens lack the experience to accurately judge whether a partner’s behavior is abusive, especially in more subtle cases. Keep the lines of communication open and encourage your teen to tell you if anything about her relationship feels uncomfortable.
Although some teen relationships last a lifetime, the majority come to a sudden or gradual end. Some couples break up when they head off to college, others simply realize that they have little in common. Whatever the reason, teen reactions to breakups tend to be passionate. Your teenager might be overwhelmed with grief. She might blame herself. Some teens even develop suicidal thoughts. Many adults react in an offhand way, making heartbroken teens feel belittled. Reassure your child that her feelings are normal, and encourage her to talk through them. If your teen’s grief affects her life, or she shows signs of suicidal thoughts, enlist the help of a qualified mental health worker.