Adolescence: A Time of Growth and Change
Relationships as a Learning Process
Often teenagers go through an intense and painful relationship phase, ultimately pulling back from such relationships, at least for a while. This is not simply a negative reaction to being hurt. It can be a chance to recenter and to face their future. In the aftermath of a breakup, the teen can regroup and integrate new information about him or herself. Lessons available at that time include: “I can survive the breakup of a relationship;” “I can assert myself;” “I can stand on my own two feet;” “I don’t have to put up with abuse;” “I can deal with my feelings and urges without getting so scared;” and “I don’t have to be afraid of what others say about me.”
Some teens put dating aside and become more focused on work or preparing for a career. They seek out friendships rather than intense relationships. They enjoy becoming more comfortable socially and being more assertive in a more effective and less demanding way. They build confidence in themselves, especially around making decisions and taking care of themselves. They begin to define their own values. As elements of the next stage are established, new dating relationships become possible. These relationships have a much better chance of evolving into longer-term partnerships capable of handling the challenges and opportunities of adulthood.
The Need for Support
As teenagers experience the problems of neediness, shaky identity, and overwhelming feelings, and stumble through their first attempts at dating and relationships, it is very helpful to have the understanding and support of parents, other adults, the old peer group, newer friends, and new partners.
Parents can play a key role by continuing to love their children no matter what happens, by being realistic relationship “veterans” who have learned some things along the way, by comforting them when they are hurting, by supporting the positive, by setting limits which may be fought against and yet appreciated, by encouraging their children to continue to pursue new experiences and relationships even though they may be painful, by espousing values which will sooner or later become their children’s values, by not preaching or using their own experience as a “good” or “bad” example, and by reminding their child of the bigger picture, including preparing and supporting them as they attempt to move to the next stage of life — young adulthood.
Other adults — aunts and uncles, parents of friends, teachers, coaches, employers— also can be very important supports. These relationships, being less complex than parent relationships, can give examples of other relationship possibilities, contribute to an adolescent’s confidence about being able to function and be appreciated “out in the world,” and provide a helping hand as the adolescent moves toward young adulthood.
The old peer group is there for support when the going gets tough with relationships. Many adolescents and adults reactivate their connection with their teenage cohort, especially when a relationship is problematic or breaking up. Keeping this option open can be important.