Helping parents understand the biopsychosocial drivers of teenage relationships, and why this time period is different than adulthood

Romantic relationships can be difficult. The initial courting or dating phases of those relationships can be really confusing, especially if you’re a teenager. With so much going on physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally from the ages of 13 to 19 teenage relationships and dating can be a perplexing and complex topic. 

Physiological Changes

Let’s start with just the biological or physiological aspects. Kids today are starting menstruation and/or puberty at earlier ages than ever before. This means that the internal biological clock for things like sex drive and instinctual procreation is ticking sometimes sooner then the individual has even been educated about sex. Because of this (and perhaps some sexualized societal messages) teenagers may find themselves in the positions of being physically intimate before they may be emotionally ready to handle the physical and emotional results of intimacy. We may not be able to slow down the timing of desire or exposure for our teams, but we can start to have honest, open and informative conversations with them at an earlier age. Facilitating a conversation that allows them to ask questions about the changes that are happening within their body and mind can help ensure that our teenagers get accurate information. 

Psychological Factors

Let’s now move on to the psychological or emotional aspects of teenage relationships. Most of the time teenagers are basing their expectations of relationships on one of a few things; their parents relationships, their friends relationships or the relationships that they see played out on TV movies and social media.Teenagers are still in the psychological stage of being easily influenced by the modeling around them. What this means is that they are still susceptible to internalizing the modeling or examples of relationships that they see around them. The human brain itself doesn’t fully develop until ages 21 to 24, and most of the time teenagers have had intimate relationships with peers long before this. At the teenage stage in life there is little ability to use the executive functioning skills as they are the last to develop in the prefrontal cortex. This means that things like priorities, complex issues like meaning and value, critical thinking, executive functioning, short-term gratification versus long-term consequence is all still being developed. These biological facts only quantify the importance it is to have a conversation with your teenager about what healthy relationships look like.

Social Pressures

Lastly, let’s discuss the social aspect of influence on teenage relationships. Peer pressure, or social expectations, has always been a factor in teenage relationships. Whether it was 50 years ago or 50 days ago, teens are looking to peers to show them the norms of what should and shouldn’t happen in relation with other. The difference now is accessibility. In addition, they are not only getting information from peers whom they hang out with on a day-to-day basis they are getting information from peers whom they have never met before on the Internet. There is a little left to the imagination anymore, with everything related to sex, intimacy, and relationships having a video on the Internet. This increased exposure- to all the sides of intimacy- means that our teenagers can be exposed to relationship violence/force/control and non-consensual experiences as well. Having an open conversation with your teen, one that invites them to participate with their own experiences, questions and feedback is essential in order to gauge where they are in their understanding of what makes a healthy relationship. 

Reaching Out for Help

There is not a guide to life, there is not a play-by-play for relationships as an adult or as a teenager. And there’s definitely not a guidebook to parenting that can prepare you for all of the circumstances, experiences and challenges that may arise in today’s society. There is however, help. If you are concerned about your teen’s romantic relationship, consider reaching out to a healthy relationships coach. By consulting with a healthy relationship coach, you can not only work through how to communicate with your teenager through their relationships, but also to help validate, normalize, and explore some of the issues that arise for your team that you may not have a lot of knowledge about.

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