From our parental vantage point of more life experience, it can be easy to be skeptical of our teen’s first romantic relationships. We know that these early relationships may lack the emotional depth or maturity of later relationships, and that they are unlikely to last into adulthood. In the meantime, we fret over them. We worry our teen will get their heart broken, or that they’ll be over-invested in this relationship at the expense of school, family, or other friendships.
For our teen, however, their feelings are very real AND these early relationships are an important part of their development and self-discovery.
In this article we’ll talk about how to know if your teen is in love, some of the common myths about teen relationships, and how you can support this important time in your teen’s development.
Their phone - always a steady presence - is now constantly in their hand. This is probably the first sign of teen love in the modern age - frequent texting/messaging with their new love and constant monitoring of their device for responses.
They seek privacy when certain message or calls come in. No one wants an audience when interacting with a crush or partner, so your teen is likely to zip away to their room and close the door even more often than usual.
They pay more attention to their appearance. Expect some extra grooming, additional anxiety about clothes, hair, or appearance, and more frequent reassurance about how they look.
They spend more time out of the house. Teens will be seeking as much time as possible with their new relationship, so expect that they’ll have more social activities or want to attend more school or friend events.
They seem distracted. New relationships take up a lot of mental space and it is typical that a significant portion of their cognitive and emotional energy is spent thinking about their new love. It is common to find teens listening to love songs or daydreaming when in a new relationship.
So is all this energy directed to an emergent romantic relationship worth it? It is normal for parents to have a healthy dose of skepticism about their teen’s relationships; with age and experience we know that these are unlikely to last and often result in a fair amount of emotional hurt or drama. However, teen relationships are an important developmental stage that set the foundation for later romantic relationships. Understanding the benefits (and dangers) of teen relationships is important so that we as parents can best support our teens.
Let’s break down some of the common myths about teenage love and relationships.
Actually, many teens do have relationships that last a meaningful amount of time. According to the CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr049.pdf), more than half of teens will experience a “steady romantic relationship” that can last up to a year by age 17 or 18. While the majority of these steady relationships will not persist past adolescence or result in marriage, a 6-to-12 month relationship is a substantial amount of time in a teen’s life. This gives teens time to experience many of the joys (and challenges) of romantic relationships.
There are certainly a lot of hormones impacting teen development! Starting around age 10 and continuing until the early 20s, pubertal hormones drive a host of physical and emotional changes across the teen years. All those new hormones definitely contribute to teens’ new interest in romantic relationships. In particular, teens have increased sensitivity to physical attraction and emergent sexual desires. Their hormones also make them more reactive to emotional and physical stimuli - especially at a time when their ability to regulate their emotion is still under-developed. This helps explain why first romantic relationships feel so intense to teens, and also why they can be particularly distracted when in love.
However, it is important to note that teen love is not simply “just hormones”. While physical changes, including hormones, do increase sensitivity to physical attraction, teens are perfectly capable of experiencing love. Love is an emotional state characterized by emotional attraction, connectedness, and caring for another person. Both positive and negative emotions are often intensified in the teen years, which can be why falling in love at this age can be such a strong and powerful emotional experience. Dismissing our teen’s emotions as not real or just hormones can invalidate their very real emotional experience.
Adolescent romantic relationships do tend to take up a lot of space in teens’ brains, leading them to appear distracted at times. Learning how to balance the time and energy of a new relationship with other priorities, such as school or extracurriculars, is definitely part of the learning experience of young love.
But teen relationships can have many potential positive effects on overall development. Teens are learning so much about themselves – who they are, how they relate to others, and how they experience, express, and regulate emotions – and relationships are a major vehicle for all that learning. In healthy romantic relationships, teens are learning what it means to be treated with respect and kindness, what it means to show affection and caring for another person, how to communicate boundaries, and how to balance this one relationship with other priorities such as family, school, and friends. Positive teen romantic relationships are a predictor of better relationships later in life. Teen love can provide a type of “training wheels” experience for learning healthy communication and relationship skills.
First and foremost, treat these new feelings and experiences with respect. Validate their emotions. It is a very real experience for them.
Second, balance privacy with support. Attaching to other individuals - romantic relationships as well as friendships - is part of the normal teenage transition of becoming their own person. Give them some safe space to do that. But paired with space can be gentle coaching from time to time. The most important thing that teens are learning is how to be in a relationship with another human - including communication, showing affection, and learning how to expect to be treated with respect. Helping your teen grow healthy relationship skills is a great parenting gift that can be life-changing.
It is important to recognize that not all teen relationships are healthy. Since teens are exploring new emotions and new ways of relating to other humans, their relationship skills may be under-developed. Teens may not yet know how to treat others well, or how to know if they are being treated with respect. Teen dating violence has been on the rise, so having thoughtful conversations with your teen about what is healthy and not healthy in these early relationships is a must (https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/ipv/tdv-factsheet_2022.pdf).
The teen years are often associated with an increase in mental health problems, including marked increases in depression and anxiety. Teen relationships can play a pivotal role in a complex emotional time. Some teens may look to relationships for validation or acceptance. Others may experience rejection or relationship loss that triggers mental health problems.
Therapy has a lot of benefits for helping teens navigate the new world of romantic relationships. Therapy can help teens with their own issues around self-esteem, insecurity, identity, or body image so that they are able to enter into relationships in a confident and healthy way. Therapy can support teens in building effective communication, emotional expression, and conflict resolution skills. And therapy can help teens cope with relationship losses, rejection, or hurt to help turn these negative experiences into lessons that inform future relationships.