Teens’ experiences in their romantic relationships play a significant role in their ongoing social and emotional development, mental health and future romantic relationships. The first romantic relationship is often a valuable opportunity for adolescents to begin to work toward achieving many important developmental tasks, including the development of emotional autonomy and independence, identity, self-concept and emerging sexuality.
A key developmental task of adolescence is establishing a sense of identity. Teens may begin to experiment with new behaviors as they begin to reflect on who they are and what makes them unique. Often much different than their friendships, romantic relationships are highly important to forming their unique identity, perceptions of themselves and others in their relationships, and future expectations in their romantic relationships.
Forming and maintaining romantic relationships allows adolescents to build many important skills they need as adults, including the ability to regulate strong positive and negative emotions, communication and interpersonal skills, particularly conflict negotiation skills, and intimacy as they learn to develop and nurture an intimate relationship. Together, these developmental tasks contribute to adolescents’ growing sense of personal and romantic identity, or who they are and how they see themselves within their romantic relationships.
The brain and romantic relationships
Several key features of development contribute to the need to seek and form romantic relationships during adolescence. For example, hormonal changes (e.g., increases in testosterone levels for boys and increases in estrogen levels for girls) that occur during adolescence contribute to their romantic identity and emerging sexuality.
Young people first begin having romantic feelings as puberty begins, as the brain begins to release a group of hormones called androgens, which promote the growth and development of the reproductive system. For boys, the third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH-3) grows larger during adolescence and drives their intense interest in the physical aspects of sex.
Combined with surges in testosterone, these changes prompt their sexual thoughts, which can make it difficult for young adolescent males to think of anything but sex. The hypothalamus also drives changes in hormone levels for girls. Although less intense, increased testosterone and oxytocin levels motivate girls to become physically close to members of the opposite sex. For girls, there is a larger focus on the relational aspects compared to males.
In addition, falling in love can have an effect on the brain as well. The novelty of a first romantic relationship leads to changes in the levels of dopamine (pleasure), cortisol (stress), norepinephrine (quick response) and serotonin (mood) in the brain — these changes explain the euphoric, impulsive, emotional roller coaster teenagers are on when they fall in love.
The impact of breakups on young people
With a first relationship comes the inevitable breakup — breakups are never easy to deal with, no matter how old you are. Teens breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend for the first time may feel that this is a particularly devastating and painful experience. A breakup may lead to overwhelming feelings of anger, frustration or depression.
It is important for teens to seek support to receive help in dealing with strong emotions post-breakup, as the loss of a first love isn’t something they have been emotionally prepared to deal with. It can be helpful to have close friends and family members nearby for support. It is important that teens give themselves time to deal with a breakup, as the intense feelings will gradually start to fade. Despite the negative feelings triggered after a breakup, it is important for teens to remember that relationships provide us with an opportunity to learn about ourselves and what we want from our future relationships.
Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego provides behavioral treatment programs for adolescents with emotional and behavioral problems. For more information about the programs offered at our Rancho San Diego facility, please contact our 24/7 helpline for further assistance.
About the author
Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.