Adolescence: A Time of Growth and Change
Dating as a Solution
Dating can seem to be a solution to the loneliness and anxiety at the core of the adolescent experience. Having a steady relationship can be a refuge from family tensions and prop up the shaky new “teen” identity. It can be a buffer against difficult interactions with peers and provide an opportunity to explore new feelings and sexual urges.
But this “solution” of dating has its own set of problems. Relationships are never entirely easy, at any age. Emotional neediness, coupled with a shaky sense of identity and anxieties about new feelings, can be overwhelming.
Neediness can make the teen feel dependent and fearful about breaking up with a new dating partner. Dependency and fear can make people demanding. The hidden messages beneath the demands are: “Protect me from my neediness by never leaving me” or “Protect me from my self-doubts by always being reassuring” or “Protect me from my urges by always satisfying them.” When demands are frustrated, then people can become controlling and threatening. The underlying messages become, “If you don’t meet my needs, I won’t meet yours” or “Prove that you love me.” When a person has not yet developed social skills or good role models for how to deal with these feelings, they can lead to abusive tactics, including emotional blackmail, insults, physical intimidation, and threats of abandonment.
Another common defense against feeling dependent and scared is to pretend that it isn’t so and to insist that the other person is the “weak” one. To prove it, a person can insist on being the “strong one” who takes care of others who are “weak and problem-ridden.” Alternatively, he or she can be emphatically independent, never sticking with a relationship, or never getting involved at all. These ploys usually are a cover for an inner neediness that is not being acknowledged.
A Shaky Sense of Identity
Most adolescents struggle with a shaky sense of their new identity. They have not had the time and experience to sort out their own identity from the teenager stereotype they have been impersonating. Cultural stereotypes of the “ideal” male and the “perfect female” can be especially compelling and damaging. This can make for dating problems, as teens struggle with questions like: “How can I withstand the pressures of a relationship if I am unsure about myself?” or “How can I handle the danger of losing myself in the relationship?” Teens need to discover who they really are and to gain confidence in asserting themselves to be able to sustain a relationship with another person.
Some teenagers do lose themselves. They center entirely on the other person, perhaps relieved to hand over to the other person the tough task of finding and asserting themselves. They find relief from their own confusion by taking on themes like: “I will be what you want” or “I will be all yours.” Other teenagers defend against losing themselves by becoming rigid and obnoxious, unbending in their self-assertion, inconsiderate of other persons’ feelings, and disrespectful of their rights.