Recognizing and Responding to Teen Dating Violence Toolkit

1.2 Why Does This Happen in Adolescent Relationships?

group of adolescents walking together

Adolescence is a time for self-exploration and discovery, and it is when most people begin dating and experiencing romantic relationships. A part of healthy adolescent development includes developing autonomy and establishing identities separate from our parents. Our sense of self is shaped, in part, by our experiences with people. Friends' and peers' perceptions of us and the feedback we get from them become even more important during adolescence. Young people may be influenced by who they date or a new peer group and may change how they dress, talk, and act. The saying “birds of a feather flock together” is especially evident in middle school and high school platonic and romantic relationships. Our self-image and how others view us is impacted by who we choose to spend our time with. These friendships and romantic relationships can alter our self-esteem and the relationships we have long into the future. Body changes, hormones, and emotions during adolescence also play a part in our self-esteem, desire for relationships, and physical intimacy.

Students socializing

Adolescence is also when we have more time away from parental supervision. We want to prove that we make good decisions so we can be given more independence. Research shows that brain development continues until our mid-20s. One of the last parts of our brain to fully develop is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive function and self-regulation skills including impulse control, decision-making, problem-solving, and planning. The limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for reward-seeking, sexual urges, and emotional responses, develops earlier and faster. This makes it challenging for young people to identify and recognize some dangers that exist, as the desire for reward overtakes rational thinking. To be clear, we can make good decisions and understand the consequences of our actions even before our brain finishes developing; it is just more difficult to do. One way to describe it is to imagine puzzle pieces spread out over a large table. An adolescent brain is looking at the table from a distance of two inches. The adolescent brain can recognize that it is a group of puzzle pieces, but may miss how the pieces fit together, or that some pieces are about to fall off the table out of view. An adult brain processes the image of the table from a distance, realizing all the puzzle pieces fit together, seeing how some are about to fall off the table, and how to prevent that from happening. An adult brain also has the experience of having put together many puzzles.

Two students hold hands while walking down a road

Minimizing or dismissing relationships as “puppy love” misses the reality and experience of young love. Adults have the wisdom of experience young people don't yet have, but that doesn't mean young people aren't capable of truly loving another person, or that they don't know what love is. The pain of a breakup feels unbearable when we are young. Adults have the life experience to know that things get better, the pain of a breakup will eventually subside, and we will likely fall in love again.

Adults may have a better ability to recognize when a relationship is showing signs of violence. Young people depend on adults to recognize and know how to respond to dating violence, because relationships and love can be difficult to walk away from, even when abusive. Our vulnerability increases when we are in love or are inexperienced in dating.