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Teens and Dating

By — University of Florida IFAS Extension
Updated on Mar 11, 2008

Romantic Feelings of Teens: A Natural Process

Teens face strong pressures to date, as well as get involved in a romantic relationship1. A romantic relationship is one that invloves feelings of attraction--physical and friendship. In fact, over half of teens in the United States report dating regularly (casual dates with one or more partners at different times) whereas a third claim to have a steady dating (exclusive) partner2. Young teens usually hang out with peers who are the same gender as they are. As they reach the mid-teen years (age 14-15 years), they start having relationships with peers of the opposite sex3. Such relationships are likely to be friendships and/or physical attractions. Although most romantic relationships among 12- to 14-year-olds last less than 5 months, by age 16 relationships last an average of 2 years4. In the early teen years dating is more superficial--for fun and recreation, status among peers, and exploring attractiveness/sexuality. In the older teen years youth are looking for intimacy, companionship, affection, and social support.

Desiring a romantic partner is a natural, expected part of adolescence. However, involvement in a serious or exclusive romantic relationship in the preteen/early teen years can create problems. True romantic relationships are about intimacy, or communicating detailed, personal information verbally, and physical contact and closeness. Some believe a teen first needs to form an identity and know who she or he is before developing a healthy intimate relationship. Other experts feel that romantic relationships are a way for teens to learn more about themselves. Many young teens are still defining themselves and romantic relationships may be based on a false sense of intimacy-in other words, teens don't know themselves well enough to share who they are with someone else.

Having a crush in the late elementary school and early middle school years is perfectly natural and part of the biological changes of puberty. Before we can see puberty's physical changes, preteens (aged 8-10) experience an increase in hormones. Greater levels of sex hormones may influence a preteens first romantic feelings. Having a crush is not a problem, but acting on early romantic feelings and biology when a teen is not emotionally or socially ready can lead to problems for early daters.

What Parents and Adults Need to Know About Teen Dating

Even when teens start dating, they are still not as close with romantic partners as they are with their same-sex friends. Still, the security teens feel in their friendships spills over into their feelings of security in their romantic relationships4. To add, parents influence those feelings of security. When teens feel secure and supported in their relationships with their parents, they have warm and secure feelings about friendship. As long as dating doesn't start too early in the adolescent years, dating can be a way to learn4,5:

  • cooperation skills and sharing of activities,
  • socially appropriate behavior and manners,
  • interdependence and companionship,
  • compromise,
  • empathy and sensitivity, and
  • how to develop an intimate, meaningful relationship.

Although most adolescent romantic relationships do not last, first romances are practice for more mature bonds in adulthood. In fact, warm and caring romantic relationships in the teen years tend to lead to satisfying, committed relationships in early adulthood4.

The dark side of dating in the teen years is that it can put youth at risk. Frequent dating--or spending time with romantic partner(s) several times a week--in early adolescence is connected with adolescent risk behaviors such as school failure (poor school performance and limited educational goals), drug use, and delinquency6,7. Other problems for preteens or early adolescents who date frequently and/or exclusively include7,8,9,10:

  • having poor social skills that last through the later teenage years,
  • depression, or
  • sexual activity.

Research shows that the proportion of young U.S. teens dating steadily is higher than some would expect. When asked, "In the last 18 months have you had a special romantic relationship with anyone?", teens reported that2:

  • 25% of 12-year-old and 37% of 13-year-old males had been in a romantic relationship.
  • 27% of 12-year-old and 34% of 13-year-old females had been in a romantic relationship.
  • 45% of 14-year-old and 49% of 15-year-old males had been in a romantic relationship.
  • 34% of 14-year-old and 56% of 15-year-old females had been in a romantic relationship.

A teens chance of involvement in dating violence increases if he or she has experienced abusive family relationships, as well as frequent, early dating and/or sexual involvement. A portion of teens face the dangers of dating violence. For example, in a representative poll of over 1,000 teens (13-18 years old)1:

  • Of the almost half (49%) of 16- to 18-year-olds who have been "seriously involved" in a relationship, 24% felt pressure to date and 14% said they would do almost anything to keep a boyfriend or girlfriend.
  • 61% of teens who had been in a relationship stated they had a boyfriend/girlfriend who made them "feel bad or embarrassed" about themselves.
  • 15% of teens who had been in a relationship have been "hit, slapped, or pushed" by a boyfriend or girlfriend and 25% of those in a "serious" relationship were "hit, slapped, or pushed."
  • One-third (33%) of 16- to 18-year-olds said sex is "expected" of people their age who are in a relationship--about the same portion (31%) of teens who have been in a "serious" relationship agreed with this statement.

The expectation for sex in teen relationships may be partly explained by the media which socializes teens on dating and sexual behaviors11.

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