As adults, we all know the emotional havoc romantic relationships can cause. Even the most mature, healthy partnerships can up-end our wellbeing sometimes.
For adolescents and teens, the turmoil associated with romance and the mental health effects are often much more intensely felt. People under the age of 25, haven’t yet reached cognitive maturity and tend to be more impulsive and passionate in navigating their relationships. At the same time, they are coping with other major life challenges like body changes, social and school pressures, identity issues, disengaging from their parents and preparing to leave home.
Research shows that young adults who are in romantic relationships, often experience elevated levels of stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms. For some, breakups bring with them the first onset of a major depressive disorder.
Moreover, adolescents and teens are at a higher risk of dating violence. According to the Domestic Violence Awareness Project, in a given year, approximately 1.5 million high school students in the United States experience physical abuse from a dating partner and 33 percent of adolescents are victims of sexual, physical, verbal or emotional dating abuse. Victims of emotional and physical dating abuse are more likely to do poorly in school, smoke and abuse substances, experience depression, attempt suicide, develop eating disorders and enter into abusive relationships as adults.
What can parents do to protect their teen’s mental and physical wellbeing when it comes to dating and heartbreak?
Parents can be proactive in preparing their adolescents and teens for romantic love, dating and heartbreak. In fact, according to a survey conducted by The Harvard Graduate School of Education, more than 70 percent of young people want some form of guidance on the emotional aspects of romantic relationships.
Preparation starts with communication that fosters trust. You want to help your child understand that love does not mean coercion, pressure or violence. Instead of dispensing advice, however, ask questions and explore issues related to romantic relationships together. Have a conversation about the intense feelings that go along with attraction, infatuation and love and relay that these are valid and normal. Consider together the markers of a healthy, mutually respectful and positive relationship. Without judgment, encourage your teen to think about how these are reflected in their relationship. When appropriate, share some of your experiences and lessons learned. If your child is suffering through a breakup, don’t try to fix it for them but empathize and support them.
These kinds of conversations can lay the foundation for a young adult’s values and views about romantic relationships. Adolescents who habitually communicate and enjoy a close, trusting connection with their parents, tend to be more self-assured and less likely to put up with behaviors in a relationship that are bad for them. They also will be more inclined to come to you if they get into trouble.
Beyond communicating, role modeling is one of the most valuable ways you can teach relationship skills to your child. When an adolescent or teen sees their parents communicating with love and treating each other with affection and respect, they will come to expect it in their own relationships.
How parents can help young adults build healthy and respectful partnerships and cope with those that aren’t.
It’s worth repeating: Young adults need to know that abusive or coercive relationships are unacceptable. Consider helping them develop a dating safety plan. This could include guidance on dating rules and expectations, how to get out of a risky situation, and basic precautions (never leaving food or drink unattended, always having charged cell phone, avoiding secluded areas, always letting someone know where they are going and what they are doing, etc.) The advocacy group loveisrespect.org has developed a guide and teen safety plan template that your adolescent or teen might want to fill out, even before they start dating.
There is no doubt that young dating and heartbreak is replete with intense emotional ups and downs. To a certain degree, that’s normal. But if your teen is not talking to you and their behaviors change or they show symptoms of being depressed or anxious, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. Helping them now, can make them stronger, safer and happier in their future relationships.