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.
Anxiety about Feelings and Urges
Another problem for teens is how to handle their moods, sexual urges, and feelings. Strategies of abstinence or indulgence can be problematic. Some adolescents try to cope by using alcohol, drugs or food to reduce or numb their feelings. Others happen on equally destructive methods for distraction, like rigid control of eating, bodybuilding, cutting, or retreating into lethargy. More constructive strategies can be an intense involvement with a sport, overemphasis on school and grades, or a single-minded pursuit of a goal.
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.
New friends provide support for moving ahead into the next phase of life — sharing the tensions, burdens, uncertainties and adventure. This can help teens avoid getting “stuck” in an unsatisfactory relationship rather than continuing to grow. Within the group of new friends, there may be someone who can become a relationship partner who is likely to be “in sync” in terms of maturation and who can share the road ahead, whatever that may be — marriage, parenthood, or new career opportunities.
In Western culture, adolescence is a time to develop one’s unique identity, to find ways to manage intense feelings and desires, and to begin to discover the richness of intimate relationships. In a complex society, mastering these life tasks can be challenging and painful as well as exciting and rewarding. Parents, community, and friends can provide critical support during this difficult time.