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What do Teenage Relationships Really Look Like?

Expanding our understanding of what it can mean to be young and in love

In the media (social media, teen-driven print, and film and television) there are few honest depictions of what it is like to be a teen who is experiencing love for the first time. If there is little to turn to for guidance and reference when encountering emotional intimacy, many young people may minimize their experiences or feel unable to cope with and understand their relationships.

We may need a new understanding of what it means to navigate love as a young person so that we can help teens understand this, themselves.

Sitting with our Discomfort

Not many adults are comfortable with openly acknowledging the fact that young people have romantic relationships. There may be any number of reasons for this (often well-intentioned ones), but it’s a truth that adults may want to try becoming comfortable with so they can support their teens when they need it.

For generations, it seems, parents, guardians, and siblings have been having conversations with teenagers about “the birds and the bees.” While this may be a great starting point for conversations about physical intimacy, these talks don’t always do much to prepare sixteen- or seventeen-year-olds for the other aspects of their romantic relationships.

As adults, we need to recognize that teenagers are having intensely complicated, emotional relationships. Though the context and circumstances surrounding adult partnerships are often undeniably different, some of the emotional experiences and interpersonal issues teens go through with their partners can be similar. One important exception, of course, is that teens may not understand themselves enough or possess the skills they may need to navigate these situations in a positive, growth-inducing way.

Hurdles, roadblocks, and dead-ends abound in adult relationships; so, too, are there valid and “adult” problems occurring in the relationships teens have with each other.

Thinking Beyond the Physical

Source: Unsplash/CC0

Like adults, teens have a lot going on. They have daily responsibilities like school and sometimes work; they may be coping with issues at home or with their friends; they may have learning differences or physical challenges they address throughout their day; they are humans, and as such, they’re complicated.

According to the worlds we sometimes see on our television screens, teen love involves a lot of he-said-she-said, supernatural powers, and emotional standoffs in hallways. Though some of this may be fact-based, it’s rare for media to depict teens as they are – complex humans with relationships that they’re trying to fit into the rest of their lives, just like everyone else.

It can be easy to brush aside the more emotional, relationship-related concerns of young people. After all, it’s just young love, right? But what if there’s more to it than that? What if the teen in your life is not only struggling to understand this big, messy thing called “love,” but they’re struggling to understand it all while also trying to comprehend what it means to cope with mental illness, or to be the partner of someone whose parents are going through a divorce?

When teens seek the support and empathy of their parents or grown-up loved ones, it’s not uncommon for them to ask adults to try to remember what it was like to be their age. In these moments, they’re trying to bring someone into their world so that they can be understood.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if that happened more often?

The Big Idea

I’ve written before about how I believe in the power of speaking to young adults like adults. This can be incredibly validating for teenagers, to be spoken to by their parents as though their opinions and experiences are equally valuable (I believe they are, for the record). Conversations about romantic relationships may have different boundaries, but my core belief is the same.

It’s not up to me to dictate what is right or wrong for any family, just as it’s not up to me to decide when a parent should feel comfortable approaching their teen about their partner. I get that it can be uncomfortable. It probably is for your teen, too! Maybe you're already talking about the more nuanced aspects of love with the young person in your life - if so, I can imagine it's been a valuable learning experience for both of you.

It wouldn’t be possible to cover every type of situation teens may find themselves in within the scope of this one article, so I won’t be that ambitious. I will, however, encourage the adults out there to ask more questions of the young people in their lives and to be open to receiving more answers. You may learn something about their experience that creates opportunities for new connections between you, and within themselves.


Steinberg, J. (2015, September 23). 7 Questions From Adolescence That Inform Our Adult Selves [Web blog post]. Retrieved May 06, 2017, from​