As a marriage and family therapist I am often asked questions such as, is this normal? Is this ok? How do I handle this? These questions come in my professional and private life. I thought I would begin a series of writings about another topic I am often asked about, teen dating. In this series, I want to address various ideas about teen dating for both the adolescent and the parent. I believe teen dating is often misunderstood and societal norms are shifting at a rapid rate. I want to begin with why teen dating is important.
The human brain is a magnificent creation but unfortunately, it takes much longer than the body to mature. With a teen, we have a person who is physically mature with a body that is capable of wonderful things paired with a brain that has approximately 10 more years to develop. This often leads teens into trouble. I think of this as a cruel joke mother nature played on humankind. Further, that same human brain also creates the urge to pair up with others. So, keeping in mind the body’s maturity, the brain lagging, and the urge to pair up, navigating relationships becomes even more critical to an adolescent’s development. Let’s explore the reasons.
First, it is validation. The adolescent feels important to a peer. Everyone wants to feel significant to peers and an adolescent that says otherwise is not being completely honest with themselves or others. Humans need to feel connected to other humans, dating is the beginning of that exploration outside of the family. These feelings are usually new and often quite intense. In no way would I ever minimize how intensely teens feel about their partner. However, these feelings are often short-lived and that is typical. Remember that adolescent brain that isn’t fully developed? The relationship helped to build neural pathways in many areas of the brain, especially in communication.
Dating during adolescence is all about discovering what you prefer and/or need in a partner. It is about learning who you are as a partner and how to be a better partner in the next relationship. It is unusual for an adolescent relationship to last for months or years. And that is ok! Adolescents will believe that they are “bad” at relationships when they end quickly. Nothing is farther from the truth. I always ask, “what did you learn about yourself in this relationship?” or, “what did you learn about what you need/want in a partner?” Most of the time the teen answers these questions with insight and that helps their growth as a person. The ability to learn and grow from a relationship is at the core of its importance. If those two things are happening, the adolescent failed no matter the outcome.
Validation and growth are two of the many reasons why adolescent romantic relationships are important. I hope what you take away from this short discussion is that the body has matured, the brain has not, and the urge to pair up is prevalent. Patience, time, and space are needed during this stage of development. Patience with oneself whichever side you reside on. Time to allow yourself to mature. Space to allow yourself to develop into the person you will become. In this series, I want to discuss some of the other important topics that develop when adolescents begin to date. The next article will be about how to have healthy boundaries during this critical time. Healthy boundaries between the parent and child, as well as, the adolescent with the romantic partner. Click here to view some dating statistics.
Thank you for reading.