Parents everywhere tend to experience a twinge of angst when their adolescents begin dating. Unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, dating violence and date rape can be sources of worry. The concerns often overshadow the brighter side of teen dating. Adolescents in healthy dating relationships -- which are characterized as having "open communication, high levels of trust and partners who are relatively close in age" according to Sarah Sorensen of the ACT for Youth Center of Excellence --learn about romance and intimacy in ways that will help forge solid self-concepts, interpersonal skills and partnerships in their adult lives.
Teen years are formative ones, and dating gives adolescents insight into who they are. They learn about some of their own boundaries, such as what feels acceptable and what doesn't, what they do and do not like and what attracts them most. In their research on adolescent dating relationships, Wendy D. Manning et al assert that "Over time, these conceptions of self affect short and long term goals, partner choices, and conduct within relationships. Similarly, those same relationships and partner choices influence the development of identity as well as other components of the self-concept."
According to Manning et al, "Adolescence is an exploratory stage where important skills and experience are obtained while dating which help teens to navigate later life relationships." Incidents of conflict and breaking up, for instance, are experiences for adolescents to endure and learn from. These lessons can eventually foster "the emergence of more mature relationship behaviors."
Teen dating is also a tool for the sharpening of adolescents' interpersonal skills. Sorenson asserts romantic relationships serve as a platform for their ability to negotiate, compromise and offer empathy. Teens can also test the sensation of vulnerability by placing an intimate level of trust in someone that they are unable to do with friends.
Sorenson points out that, "As adolescents become more autonomous from their parents, their romantic relationships increasingly become a source of emotional support." This support is particularly crucial when a given teen is of a "sexual minority." If an adolescent is questioning their sexual orientation, and is uncomfortable with addressing the issue with parents, other family members and even friends for fear of retribution, a teen's romantic partner may be the primary support.
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Jill Avery-Stoss is a graduate of Penn State University and a writer and editor based in northeast Pennsylvania. Having spent more than a decade working with victims of sexual and domestic violence, she specializes in writing about women's issues, with emphasis on families and relationships.
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