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Teenage Love and Relationships: What Parents Can Expect

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Falling in love is an intense emotional experience at any age. But during adolescence, when everything feels bigger and it’s all happening for the first time, the ups and downs can be even more extreme. The old song “A Teenager in Love” accurately sums up the experience of teenage love: 

One day I feel so happy
Next day I feel so sad

Between the flood of teen hormones and the other physical and emotional changes associated with puberty, young love can feel like a roller coaster. It’s exhilarating, scary, and full of heart-lifting highs and stomach-dropping lows. 

Parents are mostly watching from the sidelines as teenage relationships play out. However, they can take an active role in providing support as their child navigates teen love. So it’s helpful for them to know what behaviors to expect from a teenager in love, and how to offer dating advice for teens without invading their privacy.  

How Do Teenagers Act When They’re in Love?

Many of the behaviors teens exhibit when they’re in the throes of a first relationship are similar to typical teen behaviors. But, like everything else associated with teenage love, it’s all magnified. Here are some of the signs that a teen is involved in a romantic relationship:

  • Acting distracted and daydreaming all the time
  • Being more antsy and anxious
  • Bringing a particular person’s name into the conversation every chance they get
  • Changes in appetite; often eating less than usual
  • Staying up late into the night
  • Spending more time on their appearance
  • Hiding out in their room texting or talking on the phone
  • More extreme mood swings 

Drawing attention to these behaviors may make a teen even more self-conscious about what they’re going through. But parents should be observant and take advantage of any opportunity to talk to their teen. And if a teen appears to be struggling, don’t hesitate to gently point out what you’re noticing and ask them to share how they’re feeling.

The Stages of Teenage Dating

While every teenage relationship has its own unique course, there are general stages of teenage dating. Many adolescent romantic relationships move through these six phases:

Stage 1: Crushing

In the first stage of teenage dating, it’s all about admiring one another from afar. One or both of those involved may have no idea that the other person is thinking about them or attracted to them. They might not even talk to each other. But the behaviors listed above (“How Do Teenagers Act When They’re in Love?”) can still hold true even during the crushing phase. Daydreaming, mood swings, talking about your crush, and talking to all your friends about it are typical of this phase of teen love.

Stage 2: Connecting

In phase two, teens progress from being attracted to each other to actually talking and connecting. This is the flirting stage, when a teenager in love finds small ways to make it clear to the other person how much they like them. These interactions may take place in person at school, after-school in friend groups, and/or online via texting and social media

This is also the time when teens may experience intense anxiety about being rejected, causing them to waffle about whether or not to explicitly declare their interest to the other person. During this phase, parents may notice teens being extremely distracted, nervous, and jumpy. They may obsess for hours about a conversation at lunch. Or they might spend all night texting with friends, trying to figure out the meaning of a comment the other person made on their social media post. 

Stage 3: Making the Leap

Here’s where the teenage relationship actually begins. The two people finally find a way to let each other know they want to be in romantic relationship. And they begin dating formally, or hanging out together within their social groups. This can be a time of euphoria and excitement for teens, which may manifest as irregular sleep, decreased appetite, and mood swings.

It’s important to note here that there may be more than two people in a teen relationship. While it’s difficult to find stats for teens, recent research shows that 1 in 9 single adults in the United States have engaged in polyamorous relationships—relationships that include more than two people. However, relationships in high school are much more likely to involve just two people, although one or both may have other partners or flirtations outside that relationship.

Stage 4: Settling Into the Relationship 

Sometimes known as “the middle phase,” this is usually the longest period in a teen relationship. The partners become more comfortable with each other, are spending time together nearly every day, and begin to trust and rely on one another. Feelings of teenage love grow stronger, and the couple may engage in or explore sexual activity. 

Overall, parents can expect teens to be more relaxed and secure during this period of a teenage relationship. However, the settling-in period can have its own series of mini crises and resolutions.

Is it true love at this stage? That’s hard to say. The flood of teen hormones during adolescence can make it difficult for young people to tell the difference between sexual attraction and real love. And to be fair, defining and recognizing love can be hard at any age. If it feels real for the teen, it is real—even if it’s short lived.

Read: “A Guide to Teenage Sexuality and Gender Identity”

Stage 5: Getting Restless

At some point, one or both people in a teenage relationship may begin to feel irritated or trapped. They may feel an attraction to other people. One person in the relationship may not be feel ready to get more serious, or they may not feel as strongly as the other person does. Often teens are at different stages of maturity and hence aren’t on the same page about how quickly the relationship should move forward. 

Either way, cracks begin to form in the relationship. As the end of the romantic relationship nears, parents may observe teens seeming more irritated, anxious, and sad. 

Stage 6: Breaking Up

This is usually the most painful among the stages of teenage dating. The breakup may happen gradually or suddenly. It might be mutual, or one person might end things. It might happen in person, by phone, or by text. Even though teens agree that breaking up with someone by text isn’t the best way to do it, close to a third have done it anyway, according to a Pew Research Center study. 

In the wake of the breakup, teens may exhibit some or all of these behaviors:

The role of parents at this point is to offer support and unconditional love. If you’ve kept the lines of communication open during the preceding stages of teenage love, it will be easier to talk to your child and offer the wisdom of life experience. It’s also essential for parents to ensure that the distress of the breakup doesn’t progress into a mental health condition. For teens with an existing mental health challenge, additional support from a mental health professional may be necessary.

How Long Do Teenage Relationships Last?

The answer to that question is anywhere from a day or two to the rest of their lives. There are some high school couples who go on to get married and stay together for decades, it not forever. But on the whole, puppy love doesn’t last. According to teenage relationship facts and stats, fewer than 2 percent of people marry their high school sweetheart. When teens do get married, only about half of them make it to their 10-year anniversary.

During the teen and young adult years, so much change is happening, both inside and out. It’s rare for people to fall in love and stay in love as both teens and adults. Moreover, teens typically don’t have the emotional maturity and communication skills to make it through the various speed bumps on the road to a long-term relationship. 

In fact, relatively few teens actually date or have relationships during high school. Teenage relationship facts collected by the Pew Research Center show that only about a third of teens ages 13–17 have dated or been romantically involved with another person. And fewer than 1 in 5 say they are in a romantic relationship. 

How Teenage Love Impacts the Brain and Mental Health

The teen brain is still developing, and the last part to mature is the prefrontal cortex. That’s the region of the brain that handles emotional regulation and reasoning. As a result, it can be hard for teens to take the long view or take a step back and consider things calmly. That’s why a teenager in love often feels emotionally vulnerable and unstable. This lack of executive functioning can also lead to risky behaviors in relationships. Teens find it difficult, if not impossible, to think about the future when their physical instincts are overpowering their rational judgment.

Furthermore, the influence of teen hormones plays a big part in teen behavior during their first teenage love. The male hormone testosterone and the female hormone estrogen, which both increase during puberty, create heightened sexual urges. In addition, falling in love releases the hormones oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline. All those neurochemicals moving through the body can trigger or heighten mood swings, negative emotions, confusion, obsessive thinking, and overwhelm. 

That helps explain why being in love can catalyze a manic state in teens. In a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Mental Health, researchers found that the early stages of teenage love had similar effects as hypomania. Hypomania is a state of abnormally elevated energy, activity, and mood changes, and is a symptom of bipolar disorder and other health conditions. As compared to a control group who were not in teenage relationships, adolescents who were newly in love had more volatile, or labile, emotions—moving quickly from euphoria to despair. 

In addition, being in love as a teen has been shown to increase anxiety. And research also associates teenage love with a higher likelihood of depressive symptoms

“Both involvement in and the dissolution of romantic relationships may increase youths’ vulnerability to depressive symptoms due to the novelty and difficulty of the emotional challenges youth face in managing these relationship events.”

Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology

What Adolescents Learn from Teenage Love 

Experiencing teenage love is part of the process of growing up and forming your identity and sense of self, including gender identity and sexual orientation. The renowned child development psychologist Erik Erikson described teenage love as a form of self-development as opposed to true love and intimacy. While romantic relationships in adolescence are often challenging, finding your way through them can yield a variety of mental health benefits

Within a romantic relationship, teens can practice communication skills, learn to compromise, build empathy for others, and solidify their values. These skills and self-knowledge are extremely helpful in building healthy relationships as teens enter emerging adulthood. Moreover, a positive experience of teenage love supports a young person’s positive self-image and confidence in their ability to forge intimate connections. This can help them create healthy levels of independence from parents as they gradually gain autonomy. 

10 Tips for How to Support a Teenager in Love 

As with all stages of the adolescent journey, it’s easier to navigate teenage love with the support and compassion of parents. Here are 10 tips for giving dating advice to teens and helping them weather the storm of teenage relationships. 

Let them know they can talk to you about ANYTHING.

No topics should be off limits. Be sure to listen closely and avoid judging or showing a strong reaction, even if you’re surprised or concerned. If your teen asks questions that make you uncomfortable or you don’t know the answers to, do the research. Or enlist the help of a friend, family member, or healthcare professional. In general, when giving dating advice for teens, offer suggestions and encouragement rather than laying down the law about what they can and can’t do. In fact, one study found that lecturing to your teen actually increases the likelihood that they will have sexual intercourse.  

Validate and celebrate their experience.

Your first teenage love is an amazing, powerful, and unforgettable experience. It’s easy for parents to focus on worrying about and protecting their teen instead of celebrating what they’re going through. This is an important rite of passage, and your teen can enjoy it more if they have your approval and positive energy. 

Encourage them to take their relationship offline.

Social media has a way of twisting interactions and making small problems bigger. Even texting can be misinterpreted and get unnecessarily complicated without the context of body language and facial expression (emojis don’t really count). Good dating advice for teens is to unplug and do IRL activities together. That might be hiking with friends, going to the beach, or even old-school dates like dinner and a movie. That’s where the real connection happens.

Protect them from toxic teen relationships.

Watch for signs that indicate your teen isn’t being treated right in their romantic relationship, including: 

  • Their partner tries to control their behavior
  • One or both teens act extremely jealous and overprotective
  • Unexplained bruises or injuries
  • Withdrawing from friends and family and spending time only with the new partner
  • Frequent arguments between the couple or between the teen and parent

If you notice these indicators that your child may be in a toxic teen relationship, it’s your responsibility to protect them. Explain clearly and calmly why you feel this is an unhealthy dynamic and why it’s necessary to keep them apart. 

Remind them that real-life dating isn’t like a movie.

Teenagers may have unrealistic ideas about romance and love that they’ve gleaned from movies and TV. Remind them that real love isn’t always perfect and glamourous. There will be awkward moments and missteps. And that’s okay. True love means feeling free to be yourself, with all your flaws and strengths, and accepting the other person for who they are as well. 

Help them stay connected with friends and experiences outside the relationship.

Research shows that having close friends protects adolescents against the negative mental health impacts of teenage love. Moreover, doing things they love—whether it’s creative expression, sports, or debate club—helps build teen self-esteem. Consequently, teens feel more empowered in their romantic relationship, and less dependent on the other person for their self-worth. 

Tailor conversations for their stage of teen dating.

Some teens may be ready to dive right into romance, while others may be more tentative. Rather than trying to control their pace or giving them too much information, meet them where they are. Share your advice and life experience, but don’t overwhelm them. Make sure they know that they shouldn’t do anything they’re not ready to do.

Trust them and give them privacy—with appropriate limits.

Customize your boundaries and expectations according to your teen’s age and maturity. Younger teens need more structure and chaperoning in order to feel safe in a relationship. For older teens, setting curfews and requiring text check-ins may be appropriate. Different families have different values and rules about teenage love and teen sexuality. Discuss those values with your teen and make it clear why they’re important to you. Then make sure the house rules are based in those values and can be explained clearly. “Because I said so” or “Because you’re too young” aren’t helpful answers if a teen wants to know why you’re setting specific limits.

Talk about authentic connections and what they feel like.

Discuss what a healthy relationship looks like. For example, your partner should listen to you and show they care about your feelings. They should follow through when they say “I’ll call you later” or “Let’s go out this weekend.” And you shouldn’t have to play games or act like someone you’re not in order to keep them interested. 

Be there for them if they get their heart broken.

The worst thing a parent can do when a teenage relationship ends is minimize the heartbreak. Yes, you knew the relationship wasn’t going to last forever and this was just the first of many times they will fall in love. But your teen doesn’t have that perspective yet. They are in pain and feel like the world is ending. Your role as a supportive and caring parent is to comfort them and acknowledge how important and meaningful this experience was for them. If they can express their grief and feel heard and validated, they’ll bounce back from the heartbreak more quickly.

Treatment for Mental Health Issues Related to Teen Relationships

If the intensity of a teen relationship or breakup is causing mental health conditions or a mental health relapse, consulting with a qualified mental health professional is the next step. When a teenage relationship ends, adolescents may need additional support to cope with grief, self-criticism, or self-doubt. Teens may not have adequate coping skills for dealing with the perfect storm of puberty, teen hormones, and intense emotions.

At Newport Academy, we guide teens to build a toolkit of positive coping mechanisms and emotional-regulation techniques. In addition, our clinical model uncovers and heals underlying trauma and attachment wounds. Teens build self-awareness, confidence, and strong connections with peers, family, and mentors—setting them up for successful romantic relationships the next time they fall in love.

Worried about your teen’s behavior or mood swings? Set up an appointment with one of our Admissions experts. We’ll provide a mental health assessment and recommend teen treatment options at no charge—whether it’s with Newport Academy or another program we’ve personally vetted. Contact us today to get started.

Key Takeaways

  • The signs of teenage love can be very similar to the behaviors associated with adolescence in general, such as mood swings, irritability, and extreme emotions.
  • There are several stages of teenage dating, beginning with a crush, growing into a deeper connection, and eventually (for most teen relationships) ending with a breakup. 
  • The combination of hormones, emotions, and change associated with teenage love can trigger or heighten negative emotions, obsessive thinking, and mental health issues like anxiety and depression. 
  • Teenage relationships can help adolescents practice communication skills and build their identity and sense of self. 
  • Parents can help teens navigate young love by providing appropriate limits and privacy, talking openly about teenage love and sexuality, and offering unconditional love and support. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Teenage Love

Can teenagers be truly in love?

We each have to define for ourselves what true love or real love means. Teenage love may be short term and immature, but the emotions teens feel are real.

How do you deal with teenage love?

As a parent, the best way to cope with teenagers in love is by giving them love and support, setting appropriate boundaries, and keeping the lines of communication open.

Why is teenage love so hard?

A lot is happening in the adolescent brain and body, including high levels of puberty hormones being released. Hence, teens feel all their emotions more strongly and experience more intense mood swings than older people.

What does love feel like as a teenager?

A rollercoaster is an apt metaphor for teenage love: exciting, scary, fast-moving, and full of dramatic highs and lows.

What happens to the teenage brain when in love?

Falling in love releases the hormones oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline. The mix of neurochemicals can cause feelings of euphoria and hypomania, as well as negative emotions and depressive symptoms.

What are the stages of teenage dating?

The main stages of teen dating are crushing, connecting, making the leap to dating, deepening the relationship, getting restless, and breaking up.

Sources:

Front Psychol. 2021 Mar; doi.org: 10.3389.

J Youth Adolesc. 2018 Jul; 47(7): 1531–1544.

Brazilian J Psychiatry. 2017; 39(4): 323–329.

J Adolesc Health. 2015 Aug; 57(2): 174–8.

J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 2015 Jul-Aug; 44(4): 538–550.