By Thao Ha, PhD | May 9, 2016
Assistant Research Professor, Arizona State University
Know any teens who’ve fallen in love lately? Chances are that you do. Most teenagers have been in love or have been involved in a serious romantic relationship by age 18 (Carver, Joyner & Udry). While teens often do not share their romantic experiences with adults, those of us working with adolescents—educators, health providers, researchers, community workers—need the best understanding possible of young people’s romantic relationships. Specific points before, during and after a relationship can create vulnerabilities in adolescents’ lives.
Romantic relationships offer teens wonderful opportunities to pursue some positive developmental tasks. Teens are gaining more autonomy from their parents. They’re turning to peers—including romantic partners—for support, information and social engagement. Early experiences of infatuation and love provide chances to learn what romantic relationships are all about. The relationships themselves can be immensely rewarding.
But when things go wrong in a teen’s relationship, there is a potential to trigger a range of problems. A breakup can be extremely painful. Adolescents may engage in more risky behaviors. We’ve probably all known adolescents who get “dumped” by a partner, then go to a party, drink heavily and engage in risky sex with someone else. These are also moments when the risk of depression and suicidal behaviors increase.
These moments may also offer adults an entry into adolescents’ world at a time when our support can be invaluable.
Approaching adolescents with respect and understanding about their relationship experiences gives us a much better chance of having a positive impact. In some cases, we might be able to reduce risks and even prevent harm.
Not surprisingly, adults think about adolescent relationships in ways that reflect what we know about our own relationships. We might also apply things we’ve learned from research, but most of the relationship research done so far has involved adults.
Here are four common assumptions that might lead us to misinterpret or misunderstand adolescent relationships.
Assumption 1: Most adolescent relationships are brief. This is normal for teens because developmentally they’re not ready to experience commitment in the same way adults are. Relationships are neither as deep nor as important as they will be in adulthood.
Here’s an assumption that’s about half true. Yes, adolescent relationships tend to be much shorter in duration. There are typically more “blips,” breakups and make-ups, and more stressful events in these relationships.
But research with adolescents shows that these relationships are highly meaningful to young people and immensely important in their lives. If you ask teens what they’re thinking about throughout their day, you’ll find they spend a good deal of time thinking about their romantic partner—or, if they don’t have one, the person they have a crush on (Larson, Clore & Wood).
Most teens feel deeply connected to their partners. They take their commitments to their partners seriously. They want and expect their relationships to last. They experience powerful attractions, intense feelings of attachment and the kinds of symptoms adults who fall in love report—excitement, energy, expectation, difficulty concentrating on school or work, loss of appetite.
Relationship breakups can be quite devastating to adolescents, sometimes precipitating episodes of depression or self-destructive behavior.
Assumption 2: The ways teens resolve conflicts in their relationships are important markers for emotional well-being and relationship status. As with adults, poor conflict resolution skills are likely to lead to dissatisfaction with the relationship and increase the chance of a breakup.
This is some of the most interesting data from my team’s research and, frankly, it’s counterintuitive. Adults who fight frequently, show contempt and have trouble resolving differences are more likely to report relationship dissatisfaction and even divorce. But this is not true for adolescents. Frequency of conflict and conflict resolution styles were not predictive of breakups in the teens we studied.
If frequent fights and poor communication don’t lead to relationship dissatisfaction for teens, what do they consider to be the hallmarks of a high-quality relationship? And why do adolescent relationships end? We can guess, but we don’t have the research at present to identify what teens value in a relationship or what factors are most likely to bring about a breakup.
Assumption 3: Positivity in relationships is a good thing. As long as teens are getting along with their partner and sharing supportive and positive behaviors, they are doing well and not at risk for emotional problems.
This might be an intuitive conclusion, be we have shown that this is not always the case. Contrary to expectations, higher levels of positive affect of males and females during conflict was a predictor of higher depressive symptoms two years later. We think that adolescents “upregulated” their positive affect during conflicts—that is, expressed more affection and positive emotions—masking potential relationship problems because of the risk of a breakup.
In another study, we observed best friends talking about dating and sexual relationships. We saw that some youth genuinely enjoyed coercive patterns of behavior and displayed frequent expressions of negative stereotypes about the opposite sex. They found it “fun” to be disrespectful about the opposite sex and devalue romantic relationships. These teens were part of gangs. Sadly, while they enjoyed talking about relationships this way when they were teenagers, it predicted sexual coercion during adulthood.Their “bad kid” personas in adolescence turned out to be really dangerous 6 years later when they were adults.
Assumption 4: When parents talk with teens about sex and relationships, they reduce the likelihood that their child will become sexually active.
Here’s another half-true assumption. Parent-teen conversations about sex can be helpful. It matters, though, how parents communicate with their teens. We’ve found that parents who lecture their teens about sex and relationships (rather than discuss the issues) are more likely to have teens who report being sexually active.
Why would this be the case? Perhaps youth being lectured to just aren’t listening very well. When parental messages about sex are delivered in a harsh fashion, teens may not internalize those messages. Even worse, they might not take their parents seriously, and instead do exactly the opposite of what their parents wish. It’s also possible that these youth were already sexually active, the parents knew it, and the lecturing style came from a sense of frustration—a manifestation of already-existing parent-teen conflict. Our study could not distinguish between these two explanations, but we hope future research will be able to investigate this.
At the recent Kirby Summit meeting—a gathering of neurodevelopmental scientists and adolescent sexual health researchers—we talked about opportunities to intervene with youth in those vulnerable periods after breakups. Could we offer support services of some sort that would help teens reflect on what went wrong? Could we help them establish positive learning that they could carry to their next relationship? Could we provide guidance that would allow youth who had been in abusive or otherwise risky relationships to make different, healthier choices the next time around?
If we did this, could we also reduce the likelihood of violence, depression, suicidal behaviors, increased alcohol and other drug use, and increased sexual risk?
Again, we don’t actually have a research-based answer to these questions. But I can tell you that the teens we worked with in our projects wanted to talk to caring adults about their relationships, the problems, the uncertainties, the breakups. “We can’t talk to our parents,” many of them told us, “because they don’t even know we’re dating.”
“Our teachers are focused on classwork and don’t acknowledge that having relationship problems makes it impossible to focus during class,” others said. Or, “It would be embarrassing to walk into the counselor’s office—everyone would know you were going in.”
These are some of the reasons I believe couples-based research in adolescents is so vital. We need to look at the mechanisms of how these relationships work. We need a better understanding of how to support healthy relationship development in young people. I’d like to see more observational studies such as the ones my team has pursued. Measuring relationship experiences in the real world is important. It would be interesting to look more closely at stress in youth relationships—for example, to actually measure cortisol levels and study physiologic health outcomes after a breakup.
We also need to know more about what parents can do to support healthy relationships. We need to learn a lot more about breakups—why they happen, the developmental and social consequences, and how and what teens can learn from the process.
And we do not have any comparable research on LGBT romantic relationships during adolescence. There is also very little about how cultural experiences impact romantic relationship experiences. Are the experiences of Latino teens different from those of African-American, Asian or white teens?
These are all important future directions our research should take.
The fact that we don’t have substantial enough research doesn’t prevent us from taking action now to support healthier relationships in youth. There are several practical steps that schools, communities, institutions and individuals can take.
The study of adolescent romantic relationships offers some exciting intersections between what we know, what we sometimes infer and what we still need to figure out. I believe there is great value in supporting adolescents to navigate their romantic relationships. Each new relationship offers opportunities for them to know more about themselves. Success in these efforts may also have positive effects in other, sometimes-related events, such as depression, risk-taking, discord among friends, conflict with parents, and academic or other challenges.
Thao Ha, PhD, is Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.