Theater and film are filled with stories of young love. They are often dramatic and sometimes even tragic. Adults frequently dismiss the intensity of these relationships because their greater pool of experience tells them that these bonds are likely to be short-lived and ephemeral. This is a mistake, especially for parents of teens.
Although these relationships are likely to be brief, the intensity is very real. It is rooted in biological and psychological processes that teenagers cannot control and do not understand. Parents and other influential adults need to respect what these teens are going through to support them and help them navigate these relationships healthily.
Hormones Aren’t Just About Sex
Everyone knows that fluctuating hormone levels at different stages of life can have profound effects on human behavior. However, when it comes to teens, adults tend to focus on the sex hormones of estrogen and testosterone only. Certainly, teens are experiencing a flood of sex hormones which contributes to the physical intensity of their relationships, but those are not the only hormone increases they are going through.
The British Psychological Society reports that along with a surge of estrogen and testosterone, teens also experience a massive increase in hormones called oxytocin and vasopressin. Along with the more commonly known sex hormones, these hormones can increase during the teen years by as much as 60%. These naturally occurring substances increase feelings of bonding and attachment.
So there is biological causation for the way that teen romantic partners appear to form intense attachments to one another. As any woman experiencing menopause, or any parent of a child going through puberty can tell you, emotions and behaviors brought on by hormonal changes are not easily controlled.
Girls Aren’t Just “Clingy”
Serotonin levels in the brain have been linked to many mental illnesses including depression, anxiety and OCD. An article in Psychology Today indicates that this chemical is significantly affected by romantic relationships. Girls and boys both experience shifting levels of serotonin when falling in love, with girls appearing to experience more obsessive and compulsive effects than boys.
If a teen girl begins to exhibit obsessive thoughts about her romantic partner, it is neither helpful nor healthy to label these behaviors as “clingy” or to imply that she is in some way weak. She is no more at fault, or in control of her brain chemistry, than a person dealing with depression or OCD. Be patient, offer support and help her maintain connections and activities outside of the relationship. If you fear that the feelings are veering outside of the normal range or becoming dangerous to her well-being, assist her in finding professional support to navigate her emotions.
Breakups Are Really Hard
Just as teen romance is marked with high levels of intense emotions, teen breakups can be very traumatic. Because adults have the perspective of age and experience, they often tend to minimize the impact of teen breakups. While it is important to support your teen and help them understand that they will survive their heartache, dismissing their emotional pain is a mistake. If you help them process this event in a respectful, loving and healthy way, it can lay the groundwork for growth and positive relationships in the future.
Regardless of how you feel about the breakup, keep your emotions in check and provide calm nurturing support. Your attitude should validate your teen’s feelings, but provide the perspective that the pain will get better with time. Let them grieve for a time and then offer activities or outings that provide some distraction and a re-entry into normal life. Encourage them to reach out to their support group and to spend time with friends. Expect that they will cycle through their grief several times before their emotional life becomes balanced again, and support them each time the pain resurfaces.
Although teen love rarely stands the test of time, that does not mean that it is not real or that the intense emotions should be dismissed. Much of the intensity of teen relationships is grounded in physiological factors that instigate very real emotional and psychological effects.