Relationships in Adolescence: Are They Worth It?

Note. Due to the appalling state of research into non-heterosexual adolescent relationships, I have focused on data from studies based on heterosexual relationships.

Romantic relationships happen early. Data shows that 25% of 12 year old have reported being a part of one  and as adolescence continues, the number jumps to around 50% at age 15 and 75% by 18. A considerable amount of people are getting into relationships early on which begs the questions: what characteristics do romantic relationships at this stage have and should they be encouraged or discouraged?

Many refer to adolescent love as “puppy love”, a shallow variant of love which isn’t quite “adult”. Although adolescents do go through alterations in their personal conceptualisation of love, due to novel experiences and gradual improvements in cognitive and emotional maturity, romantic relationships in adolescence are significant and deserve to be taken more seriously. First of all, research shows at 17, people have an almost identical grasp of romantic relationships compared to adults, indicating that the capabilities and behaviours typically associated with relationships are understood in adolescence. If the understanding of the mechanisms of love and romantic relationships are identical then what adolescents experience is more significant than mere puppy love. Adolescent relationships are not be as transient as many think. Approximately 20% of those aged 14 or younger had a relationship lasting 11 months or more, as did 35% of those ages 15-16. This jumps to 60% in those aged 17 and 18. Adolescent relationships can enter into long-term territory, further showing their depth. By respecting these relationships as real and significant, one can begin to properly understand their potential outcomes.

Romantic relationships in adolescence are capable of influencing an individual’s personal growth, their mental health, and other crucial aspects. I will first outline how these aspects can be negatively affected. Plenty of research indicates that break-ups are triggers, and one of the strongest predictors, for depressive episodes, suicide attempts and suicide completion with female participants showing a particular risk for negative outcomes as a result of relationship dissolution. Many short-term relationships are also associated with a higher prevalence of depressive symptoms. I would assume this occurs as a result of the build-up of negative emotions from multiple break-ups without ample time to recover from the changes and integrate any lessons learned.

Adolescents in romantic relationships actually cite their partner, or the opposite sex (heterosexual participants) in general, as the most common source of negative emotions or stress. Likely due to the social pressures that can be felt at any stage in dating, from having crushes or a desire to present a certain image to the opposite sex. When this is coupled with evidence that shows adolescents in relationships commonly neglect their friends for their partner, it is clear that the collection of negative emotions from the partner and the lack of emotional support, due to the neglect of close friends, is perfect ground for depressive symptomology to arise.

Other risks pertaining to adolescent relationships include: divorce, pregnancy, STDs, dating violence and early marriage. Pregnancy and STD prevalence are perhaps the most obvious risks as vaginal sex is often a component of heterosexual adolescent relationships; those in relationships have more frequent genital contact than those who are not. More than 25% of adolescents are victims of dating violence. In 25 to 50% of marital violence cases, dating violence preceded it. In relation to marriage, teenage relationships which result in early marriage are associated with a higher prevalence of poor marital satisfaction and ultimately, higher risk for divorce.

Although there are risks to romantic relationships, some of these can be mitigated – suggestions as to how I will provide later. These interactions in adolescence can also confer benefits onto those involved. For example, romantic self-concept and feeling of self-worth can increase as a result of adolescent romantic relationships. Self-perceived competence in romantic relationships also increases and can be utilised as a facet of general competence. Relationships which are moderate in length (around 2 to 7 months) are actually good preparation for romantic relationships in early adulthood and can lead to better quality relationships later on. These early romantic experiences can also be important in sexual development, particularly in understanding sexual identity, orientation and romantic self-concept. Research shows that those experiencing more psychosocial problems would benefit from dating an individual with less psychosocial problems while the one with less problems would remain largely unaffected.

To minimise the harms and maximise the benefits of romantic involvement in adolescence, one should focus on having fewer but longer relationships. Studies have shown that those who have done this have smoother relationship processes in young adulthood than those who dated more people. Dating fewer people will also negate the possible build up of negative emotions. If a break-up is experienced, it will be important to properly recover – I have a post that can help here. Making the right choice is also crucial, people are not necessarily who they seem to be, especially when we are encouraged to “put our best foot forward” while dating. This provides a somewhat enhanced version of ourselves which we, on average, are not. Allowing time to consider how well a romantic partner fits can be instrumental in mitigating possible risks. Of course, STDs and pregnancy can become a lesser risk with the use of contraception during any form of sex. It is absolutely vital that you keep your friends close. Not even for emotional support alone, there are so many benefits to having friends which extend beyond tangible things. Do not neglect and eventually lose them as they will should be an important part of your life. Cultivating good relationships with friends and family can also provide you with the skills required for harmony within a romantic relationship so, you don’t necessarily need a romantic relationship to teach you what you need.

To answer the question, adolescent romantic relationships should neither be encouraged or discourage but allowed to just happen if they do. If you’re a parent who doesn’t allow it, your child will probably do it anyway. Remain open to the possibility if it will work for you and ensure you have support or can support someone in one if they do begin to become worse of for it. It’s difficult predicting outcome but careful consideration and a great support network can go a long way.

Sources – developmental significance of adolescent romantic relationships – gives some outcomes of early relationships (valuable) – interesting point about relationships having more negative interactions than best friendships!po=1.08696 – high functioning vs. Low functioning partner and it’s effects – early experiences and young adulthood relationships – mediated relationships relating to romantic relationships – results of early/normal onset of romantic relationships and non-daters – dating experience and sexism – partner influence and career – inauthenticity and mental health – smoking and relationships


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