While dating at any age can be an emotional minefield, few adults would choose to relive their turbulent teenage years when at the best of times the first jolts of romantic angst typically had seismic results on our psyche.

Until age 25, the prefrontal cortext—the area that forms cognitive maturity—is still developing.1 Obviously, this lack of discernment during a life period in which impulsivity and heightened passion rule, further diminish the ability to navigate new and daunting life stages.

According to a 2016 study of more than 4,000 Australian youths, over 50% of young people have started dating by the age of 15.2 Adolescents and young adults already have so much to deal with besides dating: navigating social and academic pressure in high school, separating from and individuating from parents, transitioning to college, struggling to figure out who they want to become… A colleague who specializes in treating adolescents says, “Most of them say, ‘I’m lost. I have no idea what I’m doing and it feels like everyone else has it all figured out.’”

Statistics also show 1 in 5 young people in the country—20%— suffer from a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and self-esteem issues.3 Certainly growing up in an era where social media is omnipresent—frequently overshadowing in-person contact—the awkwardness, confusion and sometimes desperation of trying to forge romantic relationships is even more stressful.

While an adolescent ‘relationship’ might last just a few weeks, it can be extremely impactful on a young person’s subsequent romantic life in a positive or negative way. Typically the patterns of relating with a love interest follow what a young person has witnessed from his or her romantic role models—their parents. If mom and dad treated one another and/or their child with frequent displays of temper, belittling and emotional carelessness, that is normal and therefore acceptable.

The Emotional Hurdles of Youthful Dating

*Ann came for therapy at age 21. The college junior, a veteran of numerous short-term relationships, suffered crippling anxiety and self-doubt whenever she started dating someone new. “I keep waiting for the guy to stop calling, or I’m petrified I’ll say something stupid and push him away. I excel in school when I’m single, but if I’m seeing someone, I start failing classes. I’m waiting for my boyfriend to realize I’m deeply unlovable and dump me.

I asked Ann the first time she felt unlovable. “As long as I can remember. My father always finds fault with me. He’s never paid me a compliment—I’m too thin; my voice is piercing; I don’t know how to be a good daughter. I’ll never get a boyfriend. Once in a while, I think there is a glimpse of something approving in his eyes, but then it fades.”

As we worked together Ann came to realize that her experience of dating was traumatic because she was unconsciously replicating the cruel pattern repeatedly instigated by her father—constantly reaching out to feel safe and loved for who she was, and being continually rejected.

“I see now that my father is the one with issues,” she told me recently. “But my mother never stood up for me or for herself when dad picked on her so I thought that was all she or I deserved.”

Then I tried to simply sum it up for her: “The first person you need to focus on having a loving relationship with is yourself,” I said. “A boyfriend should ADD to your life, not BE your life!”

The Risks of Sex

A 2014 survey of Australian teens reported that one-quarter of the sexually active participants had experienced unwanted sex. The reasons included feeling too frightened or pressured by their partner.

While the #MeToo movement may have shed beams of light on the prevalence of sexual abuse, many young women still remain uncertain about what does and does not constitute healthy sexual relations. Further evidence of the perplexity exists in a 2017 study that examined the prevalence of teenage girls feeling pressured by boys into texting nude selfies. The author concluded that many young women take on the responsibility for handling coercive behaviors due to societal pressure and other factors but lack the tools to do so.4

A tragically-common scenario: *Tina blames herself for a forced sexual assault she endured 11 months ago. The 18-year-old cried, “I said no several times when he started sliding inside of me but I didn’t try to fight so it was mutual, right? That’s what *Ken told me. He still texts me to get together even though I never answer.”

When I informed her that she said no! It was rape—no man ever has the right to force or intimidate her, she dissolved in tears of shock and dawning power. “I felt so ashamed like I didn’t have the right to be angry.”

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The young and emotionally insecure are particularly susceptible to peer pressure. *Tim, 26, was haunted by an event that happened in his college years. He recounted feeling ‘coerced’ by his fraternity brothers to take advantage of a date’s drunkenness and have sex. “I knew it was wrong but it felt so good to be treated like one of the guys.” He asked plaintively, “Am I a terrible person? I would never, ever do anything like that again.”

I responded by telling him, “You are a person who did a terrible thing.”

Though he hadn’t seen his victim in years, after a few months of our sessions he located her on Facebook and Dm’ed her. He told me the upshot. “She never wants me to contact her again but said it made her feel a little better that I apologized.”

Doing This Is Crucial

Parents need to help their children develop healthy, caring relationships and to never accept (or dole out) behavior that is less than respectful. Let your child know you want him or her to feel safe asking questions and confiding experiences. And don’t be reticent about finding your child a therapist to aid with this hugely important job

Uncertain how to approach this difficult topic? Read “How to Talk to Teens about Sex and Sexual Harassment” by author, parenting expert and Psycom Editorial Advisor Katie Hurley, LCSW. You can also access more tips by consulting this guide to helping teens develop healthy relationships by experts from Harvard Health.

In the meantime, forgive yourself for not being a ‘perfect’ parent (haven’t met one yet!) and role model to your child. After all, you too were reared by imperfect people. What counts is that you want your son or daughter to not suffer from witnessing your mistakes up close and personal, but to learn and grow from them.

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Last Updated: Sep 26, 2019