Child Development Theory: Adolescence (12-24)
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Teens and Romantic Relationships and With Other Adults

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

While every family, religion, and culture have different rules and expectations about courtship, most youth have at least some interest in romantic relationships and may attempt to form a romantic bond, even if doing so breaks the rules. Youth begin to feel pressure to form romantic relationships at this age for several reasons: 1) normal biological drives, 2) the expectations of their peers, or 3) numerous media messages that normalize sexual activity between teens. More information about teens' sexual development will be found at the end of this article.

two hearts linkedYouth in early and middle adolescence will usually begin dating. However, for younger adolescents, "dating" doesn't necessarily mean two youth spending time alone together. Younger teens often feel more comfortable if a date occurs within the context of a larger gathering of friends. For instance, a group of young teens may typically meet at the local skating rink on Friday nights. Bill may ask Marcia if she will go skating with him, even though they both usually attend Friday night skating with their group of friends. On this "date" both Marcia and Bill will spend time talking and skating with their other friends as usual, but they will also some special time together, and they may hold hands while skating together. For younger teens' this activity may constitute a "date."

By late adolescence, youth continue to explore dating and romantic relationships. But, youth may handle dating quite differently. At this stage, a "date" usually implies a more exclusive quality, although dating may still occur in the context of larger groups. For instance, Bill may ask Marcia to attend the prom with him, but there is exclusive expectation to this invitation. Unlike skating 5 years ago, Bill does not expect Marcia to spend much time chatting and dancing with all her other friends.

Some youth will continue to enjoy casual dating throughout their adolescence. They may form romantic attachments that are somewhat shallow and temporary for the sake of having fun and companionship, or because it is expected by their peer group. These youth are not yet ready to create mature, emotionally intimate relationships. This may because they aren't ready, willing, or able to make the commitment required of such relationships. Or perhaps they are committed to other important goals that require their energy and full attention such as working at a part-time job to save money for college, or taking care of another family member. Other youth are ready for a more intimate romantic relationship and deeply desire a committed relationship because of the closeness and security that such relationships provide. These youth may form monogamous, intimate relationships with the ultimate goal of creating a lasting, committed relationship or marriage. All romantic attachments during adolescence have to potential to include sexual activity in varying degrees. Adolescent sexual development discusses this topic in greater detail.

Teens and Other Adult Relationships

The relationships with friends and family are not the only relationships that change. Youths' relationships with other adults such as teachers, coaches, and bosses, change in both quality and quantity. During adolescence youth begin to form more autonomous relationships with these adults. This means youth must shoulder more responsibility to make these relationships work, and they no longer rely on their parents or other caregivers, for assistance with problematic relationship issues, or communication difficulties. Furthermore, youth will interact with a greater number of adults outside their immediate family.

In early adolescence, pre-teens and teens begin to attend middle school or junior high. At this educational level teachers emphasize students' responsibility for understanding and following instructions, and for completing assignments without prompts or assistance from their parents. In contrast, grade school teachers may send letters home to parents to remind them of the due dates for big projects, and the dates of special events such as field trips, recitals, or fund-raisers. Grade school teachers also expect that parents may need to assist their child to complete homework on time. However, by the time these students reach middle school or junior high school, teachers will talk directly to the students about these deadlines and explain their expectations for the completion of assignments. Students are now expected to plan out the steps needed to complete an assignment or project; assemble the materials they need to complete the project; and meet the established deadlines with only minimal parental involvement.

Youth may also become more involved with team sports, student organizations, and other activities that will put them into contact with even more adults outside their family. These adults will also expect youth to take on more responsibility. For instance, a coach expects students to arrive at practice on time, with the right equipment and proper attire. Youth at this developmental stage will still need guidance and encouragement to make the right choices about budgeting their time, but they are beginning to take the ownership and responsibility for their choices.

Similarly, in middle adolescence, youth may begin either paid or volunteer employment. They must determine how to please their supervisors, how to negotiate with management about scheduling or pay, and how to successfully meet the requirements of the job. Employers often have less patience and forgiveness than parents and teachers because they are under no obligation to employ youth. Youth learn very quickly that if they want to keep their job, they will need to keep their boss happy. Similarly, youth must learn how to work cooperatively with their co-workers in order to get the job done correctly and efficiently so that their employer remains satisfied with their performance.

By late adolescence, youth are usually working full-time, or attending college or other training classes. At this point, relationships may become more collaborative as youth work alongside adults in order to meet their mutual goals. For example, a twenty-year-old college student may co-lead a research project with her professor so that she can obtain research experience and a journal byline. Her participation not only furthers her own career, but also that of her professor.

In summary, a socially mature adolescent will have learned to achieve balance and satisfaction in their relationships with others despite the increasing complexity of their social networks with family, friends, romantic partners, co-workers, teammates, coaches, teachers, classmates, etc. An extreme lack of balance may indicate a potential problem. In most cases, it isn't healthy for adolescents to completely cut themselves off from their families. Likewise, it isn't healthy for youth to totally isolate themselves and avoid socializing with their peers. These can be worrisome signs of depression, drug abuse, or other serious problems. A significant problem may be indicated by: 1) the complete avoidance of family members, 2) the lack of any friends, 3) spending the majority of time alone or engaged in solitary activities, or 4) a major change in mood, behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns. If parents or caregivers notice these signs they will want to contact their family doctor or a mental health professional for additional guidance and help.

 




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