Recent study provides helpful information about teen dating perceptions

A deeper understanding about young people’s views on dating relationships may improve programs as well as build youth-adult dialog around these issues.

If you interact with teens – as a parent, educator, youth worker or in some other kind of role – you may have done some thinking about their current or potential dating relationships. You may have heard statistics about the prevalence of unhealthy and abusive teen dating behaviors. You may also have had conversations with young people about what they hope for within romantic relationships. However, you might be surprised to learn that there’s been little research focused specifically on teens’ conceptions of dating relationships and the kinds of things they hope are part of dating relationships.

A recent study was designed to provide a deeper understanding about young people’s perceptions of dating relationships compared with the perceptions of adults who specifically work within the area of teen dating. The study, highlighted in the 2014 report titled Teen Dating Relationships: Understanding and Comparing Youth and Adult Conceptualizations, asked teens (ages 14-18), young adults (ages 19-22) and adults to share their perspectives about teen dating relationships. The young adult age group was included in the study to provide the perspectives of those who are transitioning into adulthood – and because relationships during the teen years can significantly affect those that are formed during young adulthood. The adults in the study were made up of professionals, such as researchers, practitioners and teachers who have been involved in policy, practice and research related to teen dating issues.

In the early stage of the study, researchers worked with groups to identify the thoughts, actions, feelings and behaviors that teens in dating relationships might have or do. They identified 100 ideas about dating and organized these into nine cluster areas, which included: positive communication and connection, the early stage of a relationship, signs of commitment, social concerns and consequences, insecurities, intense focus on the relationship, warning signs, dependence and abuse. Researchers then asked youth and adults to rate the frequency and desirability of all the ideas – that is, how often they thought something occurred within teen dating relationships and the extent to which they desired it to be a part of dating relationships. There was a lot of agreement between what the teens/young adults and adults thought related to positive communication and connection – which included things like spending time together, helping and supporting each other, getting to know each other and respecting and accepting each other. Both groups listed these kinds of characteristics as the most highly desired, and the teens/young adults gave this area the highest rating for being “very common” in teen dating relationships.

The youth and adults differed significantly in their perceptions about the frequencies of the characteristics in the “insecurities” cluster area – things like acting impulsively without thinking, acting dramatic or doing things based on what you think other couples are doing. Although both groups rated these kinds of characteristics relatively low in terms of desirability, the adults thought they were more common within teen dating relationships than the young people did.

Other findings from the study include the following:

  • Many young people shared that they feel a sense of judgment from adults generally and related to dating relationships in particular. They don’t believe that adults take these dating relationships seriously and said that adults often belittle teen dating relationships by describing them as “experiments” or “rebellion.” This may explain why some youth choose not to talk about these issues with parents or other adults.
  • Youth in the study identified their peers as a very influential frame of reference for their perspectives on dating (other research has called for more focus on the roles of adolescents’ peer networks in dealing with abusive dating situations). Young people also mentioned their own dating experiences, pop culture and media (such as reality television shows) as influential sources for how they think about these issues.
  • The teens and young adults talked about the complexity of many of the ideas listed in the nine cluster areas, sharing that many could be viewed as “good or bad” depending on how frequently they occurred or how intense they were. For example, one of the ideas within the “intense focus” cluster was “getting texts, calls or messages from their partner all the time.” The young people shared that this could be seen as positive and welcomed attention by some teens or as obsessive or stalking behavior by others.
  • The youth involved with the study were aware that it was designed to provide helpful information for adults who work within the area of teen dating issues. However, many of the young people suggested that the results could be helpful for parents and teachers as well, noting that “adults in their lives rarely seem interested or able to talk about their relationships or help them with relationship challenges.”

The study’s authors recommended those who provide teen dating programs may want to broaden their program focuses beyond preventing abusive behaviors to include an emphasis on promoting positive and healthy behaviors. They also recommended that programs should offer teens skills that help them navigate uncertain or stressful aspects of relationships – skills that can help them make informed decisions about situations, such as knowing when to break up with someone and when to work through a situation.

Michigan State University Extension provides programs and opportunities for adults to help young people learn more about issues including dating violence, bullying and harassment. For example, the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative is designed to help young people and adults work together to prevent issues of bullying – including knowing the differences between relationship patterns that are healthy and those that are unhealthy. The initiative includes the comprehensive Be SAFE curriculum, which is designed for use in both school and out-of-school settings.

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