Usually, around 20 percent of the class raise their hands. I then tell them to keep their hands raised if they are still glad they had that type of relationship in high school. Without fail, all of the hands sink to their laps. Then follows stories with common themes, including control, pain, dependence, and missed opportunities.
The reason these themes find common expression among teenagers is directly related to the unreadiness of adolescents to commit to highly intimate relationships. Adolescence is a time of identity formation when the teen is in the process of developing a secure identity that prepares himself for independent living outside of the family nest.
Especially during the years from 13 to 18, this emerging identity should become increasingly secure and confident. This is dependent, of course, on a stable, loving and secure environment. Ideally, the adolescent should emerge out of adolescence with a decent understanding of self, ready for young adulthood, which is the appropriate developmental time to build more intimate, longer-term relationships.
If the adolescent chooses to become involved in a long-term relationship, there are several potential consequences. One, an intense long-term relationship tends to arrest the natural development of the adolescent’s identity, thus often stunting the emotional and social development.
Rather then developing an independent self, it is all too easy to depend on the teenager’s boyfriend or girlfriend. This not only stifles development but also potentially creates an unhealthy, dependent relationship. This is why so many teenager relationships often become clingy and possessive, which unfortunately may set a pattern of relating for later life. Two, after developing an overly dependent relationship, the adolescent becomes fearful of being on his own.
If the relationship should end, the natural temptation for the teen is to quickly gravitate to another intimate, long-term relationship, thus further stifling emotional and social development. Three, teenagers involved in long-term relationships tend to become so absorbed in one another that they isolate themselves from the rest of the peer group. This exclusiveness translates into missed opportunities for social and emotional interaction that give the teen a needed wider perspective on life. Fourth, once dependent upon another to meet social and emotional needs, the teenager is less likely to explore or take new risks.
Since the teen’s comfort zone often prohibits taking risks, there are many missed opportunities for new challenges and new growth. Fifth, the longer the relationship the greater the risk for physical intimacy. Sexual intercourse, besides being a moral and health issue, is also a developmental issue. Because sexual intercourse breaks down ego boundaries, such involvement can also stunt development. As is true for almost everything in life, there is a time and place for everything.
Ideally, adolescence is the time and place for sampling from a variety of relationships. As one teen succinctly stated to a van load of girls fretting over what to do about their possessive, clinging boyfriends, “We are not married. This is our time to shop around.”
I agree. My advice to teens: Date around. Sample a variety of personalities and be better prepared to make a worthy and wise choice when the right time and place arrives.