Romantic Relationships in Adolescence Provide Practice for Adulthood (page 2)
Many children talk of love and romance even in kindergarten and the primary grades. For instance, they may claim to have “boyfriends” or “girlfriends.” And the opposite sex is the subject of some curiosity throughout the elementary school years.
With the onset of adolescence, the biological changes of puberty are accompanied by new, often unsettling feelings and sexual desires. Not surprisingly, then, romance is often on adolescents’ minds and is a frequent topic of conversation at school (B. B. Brown, Feiring, & Furman, 1999). From a developmental standpoint, romantic relationships have definite benefits: They can address young people’s needs for companionship, affection, and security, and they provide an opportunity to experiment with new social skills and interpersonal behaviors (Furman & Simon, 1999; B. C. Miller & Benson, 1999). At the same time, romance can wreak havoc with adolescents’ emotions. Adolescents have more extreme mood swings than younger children or adults, and for many, this instability may be partly due to the excitement and frustrations of being romantically involved or not involved (Arnett, 1999; Larson, Clore, & Wood, 1999).
In about fifth and sixth grade, all our little group that we had . . . was like, “OK,” you know, “we’re getting ready for junior high,” you know, “it’s time we all have to get a boyfriend.” So I remember, it was funny, Carol, like, there were two guys who were just the heartthrobs of our class, you know . . . so, um, I guess it was Carol and Cindy really, they were, like, sort of the leaders of our group, you know, they were the, yeah, they were just the leaders, and they got Tim and Joe, each of those you know. Carol had Tim and Cindy had Joe. And then, you know, everyone else, then it kind of went down the line, everyone else found someone. I remember thinking, “Well, who am I gonna get? I don’t even like anybody,” you know. I remember, you know, all sitting around, we were saying, “OK, who can we find for Sandy?” you know, looking, so finally we decided, you know, we were trying to decide between Al and Dave and so finally I took Dave (Eckert, 1989, p. 84).
For youngsters in the middle school grades, romantic thoughts may also involve crushes on people who are out of reach—perhaps favorite teachers, movie idols, or rock stars (B. B. Brown, 1999; B. C. Miller & Benson, 1999).
Eventually, however, many adolescents begin to date, especially if their friends are also dating. Their early choices in dating partners are often based on physical attractiveness or social status, and dates may involve only limited and superficial interaction (Furman, Brown, & Feiring, 1999; Pellegrini, 2002). As adolescents move into the high school grades, some form more intense, affectionate, and long-term relationships with members of the opposite sex, and these relationships often (but by no means always) lead to some degree of sexual intimacy (B. B. Brown, 1999; J. Connolly & Goldberg, 1999). The age of first sexual intercourse has decreased steadily during the last few decades, perhaps in part because the media often communicate the message that sexual activity among unmarried partners is acceptable (Brooks-Gunn & Paikoff, 1993; Larson et al., 1999). In the United States the average age of first sexual intercourse is now around age 16, and the majority of adolescents are sexually active by 18. However, the age varies considerably as a function of gender (boys begin earlier) and cultural background (Hofferth, 1990; Katchadourian, 1990; Lippa, 2002; D. S. Moore & Erickson, 1985).
As they reach high school (sometimes even earlier), some young people find themselves attracted to their own sex either instead of or in addition to the opposite sex. Adolescence can be a particularly confusing time for gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals. Some actively try to ignore or stifle what they perceive to be deviant urges. Others accept their sexual yearnings yet struggle to form an identity while feeling different and isolated from peers (Morrow, 1997; C. J. Patterson, 1995). Many describe feelings of anger and depression, some entertain thoughts of suicide, and a higher than average proportion drop out of school (Elia, 1994; C. J. Patterson, 1995).
Teenagers often have mixed feelings about their early sexual experiences, and those around them—parents, teachers, peers—are often uncertain about how to handle the topic (Alapack, 1991; Katchadourian, 1990). When parents and teachers do broach the topic of sexuality, they often raise it in conjunction with problems, such as irresponsible behavior, substance abuse, disease, and unwanted pregnancy. And they rarely raise the issue of gay, lesbian, and bisexual orientations except within the context of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and other risks (M. B. Harris, 1997).
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