Think of high school romance: Images come to mind of the school dance, with lucky couples clinging to one another — and having all the fun — on the dance floor. Dejected singletons sit it out on the sidelines, feeling sorry for themselves. Right?
The reality of teen dating may be very different, according to a recent study out of the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health. Researchers there followed a group of adolescents from the 6th through the 12th grade. Students were surveyed each year about their relationships, whether or not they dated, and whether they had symptoms of depression or even suicidal thoughts. Their teachers also reported their views on how well these same students were doing at school in leadership, social skills, and signs of depression.
The results? Nondating students did just as well — and often better — than their classmates who had coupled up when it came to levels of happiness and interpersonal skills. In fact, their teachers ranked their single students significantly higher for social and leadership skills.
This does not come as a surprise to Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in Fairfield County, CT, who specializes in the treatment of adolescents. “I followed this study with interest,” she says. “And the results did not surprise me. I see it in my practice all the time. Not just teen girls, but boys, too, who are devastated when a relationship ends. They did not expect its demise to affect them so adversely. They think they’re ready for physical intimacy but are surprised how emotionally connecting physical intimacy can be. Then, after a breakup, they must return to school, where they see this person — and they can’t get space” to work through it.
While dating can be a normal and healthy part of teen development, Greenberg says, there may be more cons than pros — and it’s certainly not the norm. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, only 35% of American teens ages 13-17 have some experience with romantic relationships, with 19% currently in a steady relationship. Yet despite the many tropes in our culture that are devoted to lovelorn teens — blockbuster movies, yearning pop songs — the majority of teens don’t date. Nearly two-thirds of 13- to 17-year-olds don’t have any experience with romance at all.
They may be better off, Greenberg says. “Social media makes it especially tough right now. It can be fuel for obsession. I see kids following their former boyfriends/girlfriends, and I suggest they block them for their own mental well-being. Also, kids often reject their friend groups when they enter into a romantic relationship. By doing so they lose vital social support when the relationship ends.”
Should parents discourage, or even ban, high school romance?
“You don’t want to set up a Romeo and Juliet situation,” Greenberg says. Instead, discuss the importance of staying both goal-driven and friendship-focused as your child enters high school.
Is there a happy medium when it comes to teen dating?
In Greenberg’s view, it’s really tough to do. “It sounds ideal — a date here or there — but the teenaged brain is the unregulated brain. Teens tend to want to dive right in, and they have difficulty setting limits.”
If my teenager is already in an exclusive relationship, what should I do?
“If the relationship is already happening, parents may introduce a lot of conflict by intervening or attempting to end it. Instead, keep your teenager busy with healthy activities — and strongly urge him or her to cultivate and maintain close friendships outside of the romance.”
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