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A Psychological Perspective of Teen Romances in Young Adult Literature

Cheryl L. Dickson

As a high school teacher, I find it impossible to ignore the bantering of teenagers in

love. One week Susie loves Johnny; the next week Susie loves Tommy. Then she hates both
Johnny and Tommy and loves Billy. Girls chatting about their hopes of a romantic, candle-
lit, pre-Prom dinner; and boys promising to return home from college to be reunited with
their true loves in high school. Each adolescent is certain that his/her love is true and will
result in a lifelong commitment. Each one dreaming of the emotional fireworks, picnics on
the beach, a honeymoon in Paris, and the names of his/her first-born. As I sit and listen, I
can't help but shake my head and wonder where they get these ideas. I then realize how
disappointing it can be when their dreams of romance and love are crushed. I question who
gives them the impression that love is always fireworks and roses.

Automatically, I blame the media. With teen movies like She's All That and television
programs like Dawson's Creek , it's no wonder adolescents have unrealistic views of love.
Teens watch these programs for a number of reasons. Most viewers enjoy the fantasy
world they can enter, or they enjoy seeing other teens facing situations similar to situations
they encounter. A problem occurs when teens expect their lives to be like their favorite
character. Just as violence on television is hypothesized to increase real-life violence,
television romance can likely affect views of real-life romance.

In order to critically analyze the portrayal of teen romance, it is necessary to

understand the make-up of their relationships. According to White, the typical adolescent
relationship is self-focused. Each person's wants overshadow the wants of the other ( Paul,
White 3 ). The relationship is largely based on convenience and shows few signs of strong
emotional intimacy. Intimacy, which is typically not attainable until late adolescence, is
characterized by empathetic behavior, trust, commitment, and effective communication
(12). Young adult relationships are highly egocentric, and these traits are not likely. In
addition, Roscoe, Diana, and Brooks determined that teen relationships are motivated by
immediate gratification, recreation, and status attainment. Teens want to date the most
popular person and have fun. Reciprocity of feelings and support is generally not a major
concern (12).

Being a literature teacher, I hypothesized that literature could undo television's

mistakes and bridge the gap between real love and fantasy love. In my mind, the literature
had to be real fiction, not the supermarket romance novels. I believed teen romance series
were likely to be just as damaging as teen movies. I predicted that quality literature would
more accurately portray images of teen love than teen romance novels. However, during
my comparison of two novels from the Love Series published by Bantam Books and two
novels recommended by the American Libraries Association, I learned that I had made
some hasty assumptions.

The American Libraries Association (ALA) "Booklist" magazine recommends Nicholas

Sparks's A Walk To Remember for young readers who have an interest in reading adult
books. According to the "Booklist Editors' Choice '99" list, the novel is a "bittersweet tale"
which will "enthrall teen readers." ALA recommendations are based on the quality of
literary work. Agreeably this book is well-written based on literary merit. The dialogue is
realistic, and the plot and character development permit the reader to feel empathetic
toward the characters. However, psychologically, this book neglects to portray teen
intimacy development realistically.

Told from the first-person point of view of Landon Carter, the novel captures the
reader with, "When I was seventeen, my life changed forever." As Landon Carter stands
outside the Beaufort Hills Baptist Church in April 1999, in his mind he travels back to 1958
when he was a senior at Beaufort Hills High School in North Carolina. He is not a student
who excels in classwork or extra-curricular activities. He is content to spend his senior year
hanging out with his friends at the local diner or a nearby cemetery. Landon never expects
for his senior year to be so memorable.

Throughout the first chapter, Landon is characterized as an average high school senior
interested in girls and not school. By the second chapter, the novel loses its realism. While
on a failing mission to find a date for the Homecoming dance, Landon realizes the only girl
left to ask in his small school is Jamie Sullivan, the minister's daughter. Jamie, who always
wears her hair in a tight bun, "almost looks like a spinster without a touch of make-up"
(21). She wears the same brown cardigan and plaid skirt every day and never leaves home
without her Bible. She was plain yet not completely unattractive. All the adults love Jamie
because of her sweet and caring disposition. While all her classmate think she is irritating
because of her constant reference to the Lord's plan, and she was "always so damn
cheerful." Since Landon was a child, he and his friends have taunted both Jamie and her

Considering psychological findings that conclude teens date primarily for recreation
and status achievement ( Paul, White 3 ), Landon should not even consider dating Jamie. He
even admits that if he asks her to the dance, "My friends would roast me alive" (35). Dating
Jamie, even just for one night, would certainly not improve his status with his friends nor
would it be an enjoyable experience. To add to their differences, Minister Sullivan and
Landon's father have had a long-standing family feud with one another concerning
Landon's grandfather's business decisions. Nevertheless, Landon, who is so desperate for a
date, asks Jamie anyway. While at the dance, Landon's friends avoid him and Jamie rattles
on about the Lord's plan for everyone.

Feeling as if he has already "served his penance" (67), Landon does not talk to Jamie
much after the dance. Although he was not miserable at the dance, he regrets asking Jamie
because his friends continue to ridicule him. Two weeks following the dance, Jamie
approaches Landon with a request to star in the Christmas play with her. Given that
Landon finds drama class boring and has no obligation to help Jamie, it should be unlikely
that he agrees. Nonetheless, Landon agrees, and no real explanation is given. Throughout
the many weeks of play rehearsal, Landon remains polite to Jamie yet laughs at her when
with his friends. Just days before opening night, he becomes so aggravated with her; he
demands that she stop acting like they are friends.

It is unclear where, or why, Landon falls in love with Jamie. Somewhere between
opening night and collecting Christmas money for the orphans that she visits, Landon
begins to admit to himself that he has feelings for her. Still, he keeps his love and their
relationship from his friends. Before their love has an opportunity to progress beyond a
casual romance, Jamie discloses to Landon that she is dying of leukemia. Landon is by her
side throughout the struggle, and in a predictable, yet unrealistic, ending marries her
before she dies. The final chapter returns the reader to 1999, where Landon, now 57,
shares that he has never removed the wedding ring and still loves her.

From the beginning their relationship is unrealistic. Their opposite lifestyles, Landon's
unsupportive friends, and Jamie's father's hatred of the Carters, should prevent Landon
from even asking Jamie to the dance. The lack of realism is carried throughout the novel;
therefore, it is difficult to categorize their relationship into White's levels of intimacy
because it is so unrealistic. Most teen relationships are self-focused, which means they only
exist because of convenience, and each individual's wishes are his/her primary concern
( Paul, White 3 ). Landon and Jamie's relationship is inconvenient to Landon both when his
friends ridicule him and when she is dying. Therefore, it cannot be concluded that their
relationship is at the self-focused level. This level is the foundation for all relationships (3).
If this level is not achieved, which it does not appear to be, then the relationship should not
even exist. The next level of intimacy is role-focused which requires that the relationship is
socially acceptable, respecting and caring (3). The couple seems to leap to this stage rather
abruptly, bypassing the self-focused level, when learning of Jamie's disease. This level is not
completely unrealistic in teenagers, but such an abrupt jump into emotional intimacy is
unlikely (4). A few months is generally not sufficient time to develop the trust, commitment
and empathy needed marriage.

The subject of marriage raises another issue. Why did Landon marry a dying girl? This
decision seems very selfless; however, he tells Jamie that he is doing it for himself, not her.
Psychologically teenagers are egocentric, which prevents them from making decisions that
do not directly benefit them. The benefits Landon may experience from marrying Jamie are
limited to the positive feeling he would get from enabling her to fulfill her dream. Given
that single benefit, one would assume that he would eventually love again, yet he never
does. Again the realism of the plot is lost.

Taking into account the unrealistic portrayal of intimacy development, a young reader
could get an inaccurate impression of high school love. Teen love is typically short-lived
because of undeveloped interpersonal and social skills ( Shaughnessy, Shakesby 4 ). By
suggesting that teen love can withstand ridicule and even death is encouraging teens to
believe that their high school relationships will have a lifelong impact on who they are and
who they will become. High school relationships do encourage identity development (3),
but because they are generally formed to improve status or have a good time they have
much less of an impact than suggested in this novel. However, in Ellen Wittlinger's
novel Hard Love , identity development is the only positive result of a one-sided love.
Recommended by the ALA's "Booklist" magazine, this novel handles teen love brutally and
honestly. Prom is not a fairytale fantasy, and the protagonist, John Galardi, does not share
candlelit dinners and fireworks with his true love, Marisol Guzman. Like so many teen
romances, this love is one-sided and quite painful.

John considers himself to be "immune to emotions" (2). Not interested in girls, yet not
homosexual, he calls himself a "neuter" (114). A junior in a suburban high school, he is
lonely and annoyed by other teen's obsessions with love. He thinks, "I can't even imagine
being in love with somebody, and letting her touch me, and tell me things I wouldn't know
whether to believe" (19). The he meets the writer of his favorite zine, Marisol, the self-
proclaimed "Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee, Cambridge, Massachusetts, rich spoiled lesbian
private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin looking for love" (9).

They share a common interest in zine writing, and their relationship escalates from
acquaintances to best friends. John eventually admits to himself that he has feelings for
Marisol. He admits, "It (his feelings) was the reason I was no longer comatose after an
entire life of sleepwalking. It seemed that, all of a sudden, Marisol was necessary to my
existence" (135). In a mistake that nearly costs him her friendship, he misinterprets her
subtle touches for similar affection and attempts to kiss her. She does see their relationship
as something special not love, but a deep connection (165) between two people who are
largely misunderstood by those around them.

Although Marisol makes her feelings clear, John realizes that he cannot change his
feelings (175). With an egocentric attitude typical in adolescents, he continues to believe
that Marisol will change her mind. Her feelings never change. Like so many teens, John feels
lost without her, he is clearly disappointed when he remembers the impact she has made
on his life. He decides his life is meaningless without her, "When I look back at my life
before Marisol, it seems blank. Erased. Whited out. What had I done then? Who had I been?
Who could I be now, without her? What would I do?" (211) For one brief moment, Marisol's
existence triggers thoughts of the end of his existence. He is nothing without her. By the
end of the novel, John has not fully accepted Marisol's absence, but he is not ready to give
up. He is ready to move on slowly.

To achieve realism, Wittlinger perfectly integrates pieces of John's and Marisol's

writing to enable the reader to enter the mind of both characters without straying from the
firstperson narration. The poems and essays provide a means of communication between
characters as well as insight into their feelings. In order to develop a realistic view of the
relationship, both characters' thoughts are needed. Without the addition of the writing,
knowing Marisol's feelings about her sexuality would be impossible. John's feelings are
expressed mainly through his thoughts that are so typical of a teen who does not
understand himself let alone the world around him. He remarks on the absurdity of teen
love, prom, his mother's second marriage, and his promiscuous father.
In addition to realistic thoughts, the relationship, although never progressing beyond
platonic, portrays teen relationships accurately from a psychological perspective. The
relationship was extremely self-focused. John's interests cause him to ignore Marisol's
feelings. He wants her to be his girlfriend, so when they attend the Prom he pretends that
she is. He wants to kiss her, so, not considering her feelings, he attempts to kiss her. He is
feeling everything necessary to make a commitment to her, so her assumes she feels the
same. He is unable to understand her perspective, which would be essential in attaining
intimacy in their relationship. The couple does achieve moderate behavioral intimacy that
is common in young adult relationships. They trust one another enough to share personal
thoughts. They are each committed to their friendship. They both enjoy the same
recreational activities, and they are able to assist one another in developing a deeper sense
of identity. Ideally, their relationship would have progressed into a deeper intimate
relationship, if not for Marisol's sexual orientation.

This novel provides a useful message for teens through its well-written text, an
engaging plot, and realistic expectations for love. Love is not fireworks and roses; it is
difficult and hurtful at times. But, the reader is also encouraged to accept that, although it
may take time, life will go on without that love. Love can change who you are, but it does
not have to. For a typical adolescent all events seem life-changing ( Stringer, 46 ). Young
adult literature needs to dispel this belief that every mistake they make or every word they
utter will affect their lives.

The summary on the back of Up All Night by Karen Michaels tempts the reader with
images of a girl who, while not looking for love, unexpectedly stumbles upon a summer
romance. "Will Lauren give in to the fireworks of Jesse's kiss? Or will she pass up a chance
to have the best summer of her life?" Both questions imply that a major life-changing event
will occur for Lauren. This luring image of a first love and a life-changing romance is typical
of most teen romance novels.

At a first glance, this novel could give a teen reader unrealistic expectations for love
which should always include moonlit walks on the beach and a deep emotional
commitment. The novel, which is written from Lauren's perspective, begins with a
declaration of her tainted feelings regarding love. "Number one: I will never be stupid
enough to fall in love" (1). Much like John in Hard Love , her negative attitude stems from
her parents' divorce. She remembers watching her parents' happiness on their wedding
video. Her mother "looking so beautiful in the white lace wedding dress that she borrowed
from her mother," and her father shouting, "'I'm crazy with love!'" (25). After eight months
of divorce proceedings Lauren concluded that "love, marriage and the rest of it was a total
sham" (26). The memories of her parents' divorce were coupled with the experience of
being abandoned by her Homecoming date when he left the dance with someone else. So
how did this girl who swore off love become caught up in a summer fling? And was her
relationship realistic?

Against her better judgment, Lauren agreed to go on a double date with her boy-crazy
friend Rachel. While Rachel giggled the night away with her "perfect summer boyfriend"
(54), Lauren struggled to make conversation with a rude, unwilling boy named Jesse.
Lauren was attracted to Jesse's body and noticed his sincere smile. Their date ended
disastrously, and left Lauren more convinced than before that love was not going to be part
of her summer.

The next day, Jesse apologized for his behavior and explained to Lauren that he too
was forced by his cousin to go on the double date. He had also been scarred by a failed love
and had no intention of having a summer fling. From his admission, they realize they have
something in common, and their friendship begins. As friends, they enjoy the typical
teenage activities. They rent rollarblades and rowboats, hang out, and eat dinner. Each day
of fun brings them emotionally closer until finally they admit they were wrong about not
wanting summer loves.

The development of this relationship is similar to most adolescent relationships.

Throughout their friendship, Lauren revealed how Jesse's appearance affected her
physically. While Lauren caught his brown eyes shining in the moonlight, she "could feel a
spark rise in my chest" (66). She noticed the "twinkle in his warm brown eyes" (72), and
she felt her heart sink when she remember his disinterest in love. Much like most
relationships, the initial attraction is physical, then develops into a friendship.

The progress from friendship to romance was logical. The relationship was providing
recreation. While riding the carousel, Lauren realized that she was having more fun than
she had had in a long time. Like most teen romances the relationship was largely based on
recreation. According to research conducted by Skipper and Nass, teen relationships are
also based on status achievement ( Paul, White 11 ). However, their relationship did not
seem to be affected by status achievement. Lauren's friend, Rachel, approved of Jesse;
however, Lauren was not dating him in an effort to improve Rachel's opinion of her.
Therefore, status was not a factor.

Similar to most teen relationships, their relationship can be characterized as

stereotypical and superficial by Orlofsky and associates' scale of intimacy (4). No deep
commitment between the two is felt; the main purpose of the relationship was having fun.
To further the likeness to real teen relationships, conflict is added. When Lauren discovers
that Jessie has not been completely honest with her about his cousin's feelings for Rachel,
Lauren quickly determines that "trusting Jessie Shaw was a mistake" (143), and she returns
to her early summer views that "Relationships don't work out. Love is for suckers" (70).
She reaches these conclusions before allowing Jesse time to explain his situation. This hasty
judgment is typical of a self-focused adolescent relationship (3). Because Jesse's dishonesty
could affect her relationship with Rachel, it was no longer convenient to commit to Jesse.
Lauren continued her dislike for Jesse until she was sure Jesse would not negatively affect
her friendship with Rachel. When it was convenient to commit again, she returned to him.

This novel did not end with the happy couple making plans for a long, joyful life
together nor did it portray them as having a highly strong sense of the other's needs. Their
communication skills were poor, and they had difficulty resolving conflicts. Both Lauren
and Jesse were involved in the relationship for the memories of a fun summer not a life-
long commitment. Therefore, this novel provides another useful message of love what love
really is.

A life-long commitment is also not the intention in Stolen Kisses , by Liesa Abrams. The
reader is invited to enter the mind of both the girl and the boy involved in a good-girl/ bad-
boy love conflict. From the girl's perspective, Laura knows she shouldn't risk her
relationship with Ted Legum, "the most gorgeous senior at Parks Hills High" (3), to take a
chance with Mark Adams, a boy with "insanely blue eyes (40)" and a reputation for being a
"smooth talker" (40). After an unexpected kiss between Laura and Mark, Mark reminds her
that he has no interest in a serious relationship. Scolding herself for her poor decision,
Laura brushes off her obvious lapse of judgment and becomes engrossed with Ted and
their up-coming date. Eagerly awaiting her date, she comments that if she becomes Ted's
girlfriend it would be "the most absolutely and completely perfect experience of her life"
(13). Her heart pounds when she thinks of Ted, who she believes is the perfect boy for her.
These extreme emotions are typical in adolescent relationships.

During her growing involvement with Ted, she and Mark become partners in planning
a surprise party for a mutual friend. As result, Laura realizes that Mark is not a horrible
person, and they can have a good time together. Although they bicker over trivial matters,
she enjoys his company. With her growing interest in Mark, she begins to doubt her
feelings for Ted. Again, her relationship mimics real-life teen black-and-white thinking.
Teens are likely to view people as either all good or all bad. If a single characteristic or
action offends teens, they will view the person as completely flawed ( Stringer 76 ). Laura
automatically labels Mark a bad person based on rumors, but as soon as she can find some
element of good in him, she changes her opinion.

Meanwhile, Mark is struggling with his bad-boy image. He lives in a much different
world than Laura. He is occasionally bitter toward Laura and reminds her that not
everybody lives a perfect life. In addition to their conflicting worlds, Mark is having
difficulty accepting that he could be devoted to just one girl. He hopes that a "meaningless
hookup with a girl" (94) would help him forget about "these annoying Laura fantasies"
(94). He is typically interested in only the appearance of a girl; however, Mark feels himself
falling for both Laura's looks and her intellect. He notices her sexy voice, her short shorts,
and also her strong opinions and love of language. Just as Laura is falling for the wrong kind
of guy, Mark is falling for the wrong kind of girl.

Their relationship eventually grows from friendship to romance after Laura realizes
that, although comfortable with Ted, she could not depend on him in a time of emotional
need. Mark, however, was there to listen to her and could understand her frustration with
her family. Eventually, Laura leaves the popular boy for the bad boy whom she can have fun
with and who can offer her the emotional support she needs.

There are two relationships to consider, and both appear to accurately portray teen
relationships. Ted and Laura's relationship is largely self-focused. Laura dates Ted not
because of his fabulous personality but because others perceive him as the "most
unattainable guy at Park Hills" (4). If Laura could win his affections, she too would become
popular. The relationship is stereotypical and lacks intimacy. The main function is to
achieve status. This type of relationship is like most high school relationships.

Her relationship with Ted had problems also similar to real teen relationship
problems. According to Sullivan, one cause of failure in young adult relationships is few or
no social or interpersonal communication skills ( Shaughnessy, Shakesby 3 ). Ted is unable
to support Laura during an emotional time. When Laura discloses her overwhelming
feelings about her sister's clinical depression, Ted responds with, "God, that really bites"
(155). Then he suggests that a fancy dinner might help Laura forget about her sister's
problem. This response was obviously not the response Laura had hoped for from a boy
who made her feel so safe. This example illustrates the self-focused aspect of the
relationship when Ted's wants outweigh Laura's needs. Ted is more interested in the date
that he planned than he was interested in Laura's problems. His lack of verbal skills and
empathy send Laura running to someone who she can become more emotionally intimate
with. Overall, Ted and Laura's relationship falls into the same conflicts as many other teen

Laura and Mark's relationship wavers between being self-focused and role-focused.
Role-focused relationships generally are socially accepted ( Paul, White 3 ). Their
relationship is not socially acceptable; however, they do acknowledge and respect each
other's feelings more than in a self-focused relationship. For example, they openly discuss
the differences in their lifestyles. Mark is not ashamed to admit that his father left him and
his mother nor is he hesitant to reveal his feelings toward his father's absence. Self-focused
relationships are the foundation of more mature relationships (3). Their relationship
slowly evolves from self-focused to the next level, role-focused. At first the main function of
the relationship was recreation then it developed into a more emotionally committed
relationship. The novel ends with the "softest, most passionate, heart-stopping kiss she had
ever imagined" (172). Although this description could possibly contribute to a false
perception of love, the reader is not led to believe that Laura and Mark lived happily ever
after. The novel is accurate psychologically; however, the writing style was not of the same
quality as Hard Love . The syntax was simple with flat conversations, and the plot contained
a few underdeveloped characters.

Teens are bombarded everyday with images and standards of true happiness that they
could not possibly live up to. Through a comparison of four novels, it is clear that if chosen
carefully both teen romance novels and quality teen literature can provide an accurate
depiction of love. Teen readers need to know that they are not alone in their emotions. It is
essential that authors who write for young adults consider the false notions that they could
create when writing fantasy romance novels. Teens read for the same reason they watch
television, to see if there are other people in the world like them or to pass the time. If they
believe everyone's love experiences will include candlelight and fireworks, they are bound
to be disappointed. Hard Love provides clever prose and attractive characters that a reader
could instantly become attach to along with an accurate account of teen love. There are no
falsehoods in this novel; love is hard. A Walk to Remember is also a novel written with
sharp emotions and images; however, these images are misleading. Realism should not be
sacrificed for good writing. Although teen romance novels may not have the same quality
writing, they are still capable of providing meaningful and useful life experiences. Stolen
Kisses and Up All Night admit that love is not always easy nor is it going to last a lifetime.
These books provide an excellent stepping stone for a young reader. What these novels lack
in powerful writing, they make up for in realism.

As a teacher, I was surprised, yet thrilled, to learn that the more widely read teen
romance novels are actually quite valuable for a developing reader. It may take some time
for me to stop cringing when I see my students reading supermarket novels. But rather
than dismissing the books as useless, I must remember that this type of teen literature
should be a bridge, not a gap, for the reader between real life and media fantasy.

Works Cited

Abrams, Liesa. Stolen Kisses . New York: Bantam Books, 1999.

Michaels, Karen. Up All Night . New York: Bantam Books. 1997.

Paul , E.L. & White, K.M. "The Development of Intimate Relationships in Late
Adolescence." Adolescence . Summer 1990, p375. Academic Search Elite . Online. 10 March

Shaughnessy , M. & Shakesby, P. "Adolescent Sexual and Emotional Intimacy." Adolescence .

Summer 1992, p475. Academic Search Elite . Online. 10 March 2000.

Sparks, Nicholas. A Walk to Remember . New York: Warner Books, 1999.

Stringer , Sharon A. Conflict and Connection: The Psychology of Young Adult Literature .
Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boyton/Cook Publishers, Inc., 1997.

Wittlinger, Ellen. Hard Love . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Editor's note: For those interested in the psycological development of adolescents as

reflected in young adult literature, please see the Greenwood Press series, edited by Joan
Kaywell, Using Literature to Help Troubled Teens Cope . . . Individual books in the recent
series focus on Family Issues (J. Kaywell, editor), Social Issues (P.S. Carroll, editor), Identity
Issues (J. Kaplan, editor), and Health Issues (C. Bowman, editor). -psc

Cheryl L. Dickson is a 1998 graduate of Ohio University. She is currently teaching journalism
and English at DeLand High School in DeLand, Florida.

Reference Citation: Dickson, Cheryl L. (2001) "A Psychological Perspective of Teen Romances
in Young Adult Literature" The ALAN Review , Volume 28, Number 3, p. 43.
BMC Public Health. 2009; 9: 282.

Published online 2009 Aug 5. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-9-282

PMCID: PMC2907520

Relationships, love and sexuality: what the Filipino teens think and feel
Jokin de Irala, 1 Alfonso Osorio,2 Cristina Lpez del Burgo,1 Vina A Belen,3 Filipinas O de
Guzman,4,5 Mara del Carmen Calatrava,1 and Antonio N Torralba3

Go to:

It is well known that, from the standpoint of public health, sexual relations among teens
represent a risk factor [1-4]. Existing literature points to the alarming consequences of
premature sexual involvement among adolescents [5,6]. Examining cross-country data,
Wellings et al. establish that men and women in most nations begin sexual activity at ages
15 to 19 [7]. Far from settling with a marital or cohabiting partner, teens engaging in
premature sex increase their risk of exposure to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and
teenage pregnancy. According to UNAIDS and the World Health Organization, the global
AIDS epidemic continues to grow and the number of deaths due to AIDS is increasing in
most continents [8]. Every year, 14 million adolescents give birth, which in developing
countries translates to one in three women under 20 years of age [9]. Owing to the health
consequences, adolescent sexual behavior is certainly a growing concern.
Competent authorities are trying to find solutions to this problem (in the form of education
programs and information campaigns). However, the average age of first sexual relation is
still too low, while unplanned pregnancies and STIs remain high [10-13]. Some behavioral
factors such as starting sex relations at a young age and having multiple (concurrent or
serial) sexual partners, increase the risk of infections [5,6,14-18]. Moreover, the use of
contraceptive methods does not seem to be effective enough to avoid unplanned
pregnancies in youth [19-22].
In addition to the physical dangers, existing literature has likewise examined, albeit on a
smaller scale, how early sexual activity could be compromising teens' emotional and
psychological well-being:
- Some studies assert that sexual activity is directly correlated to emotional problems
among American teens; sexually active teenagers are more likely to be depressed and more
likely to attempt suicide than teenagers who are not sexually active (even after controlling
for sex, race, age and socio-economic status) [23,24].
- Personal testimonies of young people reveal that emotional dangers of premature sexual
involvement are real [25].
- Most sexually experienced teens are already reporting feelings of regret over premature
sexual intercourse [26,27].
Research points to different factors affecting early sex among teens. Several studies have
confirmed more risky behaviors in males compared to females (higher prevalence of
premarital sex, less likelihood to be sexually abstinent, increased odds of engaging in risky
sex and younger age at first sexual relationship) [28-31].
Socio-economic status is also an important factor. Singh et al. ascertain that adolescent
childbearing is more likely among women with low levels of income and education [32].
Several family variables have proven to be related to sexual behavior. Parent-child
communication is protective against early sex [30,33,34], especially for girls [33].
Furthermore, according to the systematic review of American youth studies done by Buhi
and Goodson, the youth's perception of parental attitudes toward sex is a stable predictor
of sexual behavior outcomes [35].
Several studies show that the sources of information available to teens as regards sexuality
are incomplete and inappropriate. A study in Costa Rica concludes that a more complete
biological information is received compared to affective information. Furthermore, the
same study reports that educational institutions are the most frequently used source, while
the family stands in second place [36]. A Spanish research calls attention to the fact that
almost half of the youth between ages 18 and 29 describe communication with their
parents on sexual matters as inexistent (25.9%) and unsatisfactory (20.6%). While parents
are the youth's favorite source of information, the youth in actuality turn to friends or
partners for information [37].
Limiting current perspectives to the physical or biological dimensions of sexuality may
further obscure fitting solutions. If intervention programs and future research are to be
responsive to the needs of teens, what they feel and say should have weight in ongoing
discussions. Expanding this research area has therefore the potential of uncovering
important and useful insights on how to best help teens.
This research is the first step toward an international study (Project YOUR LIFE), on what
the youth think and feel about relationships, love and sexuality; with the general objective
of enabling future health education programs focusing on character and sex education to be
grounded on youth's opinions and needs.
In particular, this paper seeks:
1. To know which is the preferred and actual main source of information about
relationships, love and sexuality on representative samples of Filipino teen students;
2. To explore what topics the teens would want to know more about; and
3. To study their actual knowledge about the prevention of STIs and unplanned
pregnancies as well as their attitudes toward specific issues such as sexism.
Go to:


Data Instrument
In order to accomplish the research objectives, a paper-pencil questionnaire was crafted to
gather data on the following categories: Socio-demographic characteristics; characteristics
of the group of friends; use of free time; access and exposure to media; feelings, opinions
and information sources on relationships, love and sexuality; and life goals.
The instrument consisted mainly of close-ended questions. A five-point Likert scale was
used for attitudinal responses. The questionnaire was drafted in colloquial English and pre-
tested in the field to 180 students. Questions were tested to ensure clarity, comprehension
and suitability to local conditions. Content and length of the instrument was modified to
last about 45 minutes.
Specifically, variables considered in this article refer to: youth's sources of information
about love and sexuality; importance of parents' and friends' opinion about different
topics; frequency of conversations with parents about different topics regarding sexuality,
and desire to know more about these topics; degree of agreement with sentences showing
disapproval towards different forms of sexism; knowledge about condom effectiveness;
and sexual experience (whether the subject has had any sexual relation).
The wording of the questions and answer scales is described below where appropriate. The
questionnaire is available upon request to the corresponding author.

The sample
The targeted study population was 4,000 students from third year high school to third year
college in the Philippines. Subjects were obtained through multi-stage sampling of clusters
of universities and schools.
Time and budget constraints yielded the limitation of choosing seven respondent regions
out of the seventeen political regions. These are National Capital Region, CALABARZON,
Central Luzon, Western Visayas, Central Visayas, Davao and Northern Mindanao. The
respondent regions were selected on the basis of having the greatest number of youth
population while limiting two regions each from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao (the three
island groups), plus the National Capital Region.
From each region, four institutions were identified as survey venues: one public high
school, one state college or university, one private high school and one private university.
Schools with wider representation of youth sectors (judgment-based) were chosen (Figure

Figure 1

Sampling process.

The total of approximately 4000 students were targeted from the seven regions based on
the respective contribution of the region to the total youth population. This sample size
was chosen taking into account approximate sample size estimation criteria [38,39]. We
worked with the criteria that 10 subjects would be needed per parameter included in a
statistical model used to adjust for confounding. By parameter we mean each continuous
variable and/or each dummy variable from categorical variables, that could be included in
a model. Thus with a sample of about 4000 students we were quite confident to have
sufficient statistical power to account for a good amount of variables in a given model.
Equal samples were taken from each year level and from public and private sectors to
improve subgroup analyses by school type. Classes were randomly selected.
Not included in the population were out-of-school youth. Priority was given to study in-
school youth since one of the implicit objectives of the research is to generate insights on
future formation channels for this specific group.
Finally, for the propose of the analyses of this paper, we focused only on high school
students aged 1318.

Data Collection
The questionnaire was implemented between July and September 2007 in twenty-eight
schools from seven regions using standardized data-collection protocols. Prior to
administering the survey to students, consent was obtained through the schools. Schools
were invited to voluntarily participate in the research project, which was described to the
schools as an effort to collect nationwide baseline data to guide future education
Data collectors travelled to each participating school to administer the survey sheets
during class hours. Administration in schools (that is away from parents) has the reported
benefit of increasing the respondents' sense of privacy and their willingness to disclose
sensitive information.
Survey procedures were designed to protect student privacy by allowing for anonymous
participation. Data collectors read a standardized script, including an introduction to the
survey requesting the participation of students. The survey's scope and respondent
anonymity with respect to the school and their parents was explained. Moreover, students
were instructed that they might opt to leave any discomforting survey item blank. The
survey was completed in approximately 45 minutes or one class period in classrooms or
lecture halls. To the extent possible, students' desks were spread throughout the classroom
to minimize the chance that students' could see each other's responses. Neither the survey
administrators nor classroom teachers moved around the classroom while students took
the survey. Students were told of the importance of providing honest answers and that no
one would know how they responded individually. When students completed their survey
sheet, they were asked to seal their answers in individual envelopes to be returned to data
collectors. Lead researchers secured and transported survey sheets to Manila for data
Analysis was jointly conducted at the University of Asia and the Pacific, Philippines and at
the University of Navarra, Spain. Ethical authorization was obtained for the study by the
Ethics Committee of the University of Asia and the Pacific.

Data were analyzed taking the weights and clusters of the sampling process into account by
using specific survey commands of the STATA statistical package release 9. The survey
mean. proportion and logistic commands of STATA enable the estimation of group means,
proportions and logistic regression respectively assuming weights and cluster sampling
and thus estimating appropriate estimates and standard errors. Significance levels of
comparisons and model coefficients are performed by STATA survey commands using an
Adjusted Wald test [40].
Go to:
The survey was answered by 3,726 subjects (93% of the targeted population). Most of the
7% of non-participation (6.5%) was due to scheduling constraints of one institution.
Responses of 28 students were omitted because they were older than the target sample age
(13 to 24 years). Seventy-three subjects did not give age information, 2 did not give sex
information and 22 did not specify whether their school or university was public or private.
Therefore, 3601 respondents were used for the project (90.0% of the targeted population).
Among these, 3044 subjects (high school students, 1318) were analyzed in this paper.
A majority of the respondents were female (64.3%) between 16 to 18 years old (60.4%).
Most of them were Roman Catholics (83.6%) and came from middle-income families
(79.1%) and public schools (54.3%) (Table (Table11).

Table 1

Distribution of Respondents by Key Demographic Characteristics

Participants were asked how often they got information regarding love and sexuality from
different sources. The source most often marked as "always" or "almost always" by males
and females respectively, was, by far, friends (57.5% and 69.6%), followed, in the case of
males, by the Internet and youth magazines (27.1%); and, in the case of females, by parents
(30.7%) (data not shown).
The questionnaire examined how parents' and friends' opinions regarding love, sexuality
and other related topics were valued by the youth. Generally, it is observed that the youth
(specially girls) value parents' opinion more than friends' in most topics (Figure

Figure 2
Teens' reported level of importance of parents' vs. friends' opinion by areas of
concern. Values are the average scores obtained in each item (in a five-point Likert scale
labeled from a low "Not important" to a high "Vey important" score). p value of ...

Parents' and friends' opinions are better appreciated by girls (compared to boys) in all
topics. This difference is statistically significant for parents' opinion (p < 0.003 in "choice of
friends" and p < 0.001 in all the other topics), and for friends' opinion except for "free time
activities" (p = 0.005 for "way of dressing", p = 0.011 for "choice of friends" and p < 0.001 in
the other topics) (data not shown).
When asked whether they have talked with their parents about the different aspects of
sexuality (biological as well as affective/emotional aspects), they reported relatively few
conversations with their parents. Concerning biological aspects of sexuality, topics mostly
discussed with parents were, for males, pregnancy (21.7%) and STIs (20.5%); and for
females, girls' physical changes (58.9%) and pregnancy (41.1%). On topics regarding
feelings and relations, respondents mostly talked about how to better manage feelings and
emotions (32.7% for boys, 44.8% for girls), and how to know if the person they are dating
is the right one (26.4% and 36.7%) (Table (Table22).

Table 2

Conversations with parents and desire to know more

On most topics (biological as well as affective ones), more girls than boys reported
conversations with their parents. The highest difference was found on the topic "girls'
physical changes", with 9.0% of boys and 59.9% of girls indicating they talked "somewhat"
or "a lot" about this topic with their parents (p value < 0.001). On the contrary, "boys'
physical changes" was the only topic on which more boys than girls reported conversations
with their parents (18.8% of boys and 10.7% of girls, p value < 0.001).
Survey participants were also asked whether they would like to know more about sexuality
topics. A wide majority of participants said they would like to know more about all the
contents presented. However, both boys and girls expressed greater interest in issues such
as how to better manage feelings and emotions (86.9% boys, 94.8% girls) and what "falling
in love" means (83.3% and 89.9%). On most topics, girls showed a higher desire to know
more, except boys' physical changes, contraception, how to know when one is ready to
have sex and how to better manage sexual drive: on these topics, boys' desire to know
more was higher (Table (Table22).
We identified some problems regarding the youth's knowledge about the prevention of
STIs and unintended pregnancies. When asked about the risk they believe may occur if one
has sex with condoms, the percentages of respondents answering "none" or "I don't know"
were 42.9% for risk of AIDS infection, 43.7% for risk of genital warts infection and 40.6%
for pregnancy, with higher rates among boys (p = 0.007, p = 0.016 and p < 0.001
respectively) (data not shown).
Attitudes toward sexism were explored by asking the youth whether they agree with media
using women or men as "sexual objects", or associating femininity or masculinity to having
more sexual relationships. On both items, more girls compared to boys were significantly
sensitive and disapproving of sexuality being misused in advertisements (Table (Table33).

Table 3

Opinions on sexism

After adjusting for sex, age and whether institutions were public or private, the students
that believe condoms are 100% effective against AIDS, STIs and pregnancies were more
likely to be sexually experienced (OR= 1.59; 95% CI 1.092.33). Students that are
approving of pornography and masculinity and femininity being equated to having more
sexual encounters, were as well more likely to be sexually experienced after the
adjustments mentioned above (OR= 1.69; 95% CI 1.252.29).
Go to:

The respondents of the study were representative of private and public schools of the
Philippines. We performed weighted analyses in the descriptive results in order for them to
be representative of Filipino students.
According to the Philippine National Statistics Office, 81% of Filipinos are Catholic, and
8.2% belong to other Christian religions [41], which is similar to our weighted sample
distribution. Regarding the distribution of sex, institutions report higher enrollment ratios
for girls than for boys. Specifically, in secondary education, net enrollment ratios (NER) are
54% for boys and 65% for girls [42]. Since sex ratio (male/female) for these ages is
approximately 1 [43], this means that approximately 55% of students are girls in high
schools. This accounts for the higher female presence in our sample.
Referring to our paper sample of teens, the main information source about love and
sexuality is friends. This is similar to studies from Sweden, USA, United Kingdom, Czech
Republic and Spain [44-49]. Existing literature likewise provides evidence that media
(Internet, magazines) are the second source of information, outranking parents, as happens
in our male sample [45,49]. A study in Nigeria, however, sets parents in the first place
among in-school girls [50].
Literature shows that communication with parents protects against early sexual initiation
and against risky behaviors [51,52]. Conversely, information sources which are mostly
used in our sample (peers, media) are not usually described as ideal for educating teens
[46,53]. At the same time, parents' opinion regarding sexuality and other related topics is
well valued by teens in our study. This is confirmed by surveys which also show parents
being rated as preferred sources rather than as actual sources [47]. Furthermore, parents'
attitudes toward certain risk behaviors (such as smoking and drinking alcohol) seem to be
protective against those behaviors in their children [54]. This seems to show that parents'
opinions are indeed taken into account when given to children. There is therefore room for
further encouraging parents to talk more with their children about sexuality, including
aspects related to feelings and emotions that could help them make better sexual and
reproductive choices. This is specially valid for daughters, who give in our data much
importance to their parents' opinion.
With regard to knowledge of sexuality, we observe that teens in most cases (specially
among girls) have not talked about sexuality topics with their parents, but that they would
want to know more. We must also stress that teens' desire for information is not limited to
the biological aspects of sexuality. In fact, they are much interested to know more about the
emotional aspects of relationships and sexuality. Examples are to know more about how to
manage one's feelings and sexual drive; meaning of "falling in love"; how to know if the
person one is dating is the right person; and how to tell the difference between desire,
sexual attraction and love. Having a better understanding of these issues can be very useful
to avoid premature sex [52], and parents agree that these aspects should be addressed
[55]. Indeed, these issues are related to the perceived well-being of teens. With sex
education programs concentrating on biological information [36], they are in effect
highlighting topics that are of relatively lower interest to teens while downplaying
education in the affective aspects of human sexuality which could be a powerful means to
empower teens to make healthier life choices [56]. To our knowledge, the issue of making
emphasis on affective aspects is seldom brought up in sex education policies.
Regarding sex differences in this issue, we find that, in general, girls talk more with their
parents about most topics, and also want to know more. Boys only talk more about their
own physical changes, and have a bigger desire to know more about these changes and
about topics that might be related to their higher sexual drive.
The teens of our study also have incomplete information on some biological facts related to
sexuality. Concerning condom effectiveness, for example, several studies show that
condoms are "risk reduction" measures with respect to unintended pregnancies, HIV
infection and other STIs and should not, therefore, be presented as "risk avoidance"
measures [57-61]. We find that around 40% of respondents (even more among boys) have
the wrong belief that condoms are 100% effective or report not knowing their
effectiveness. This overconfidence or lack of information can lead teens to underestimate
the risks they are taking [62]. Teens who believe condoms can avoid rather than reduce the
risk of STIs, underestimate the benefits of abstinence and mutual monogamy, as found in
previous studies [37,63,64]; this perspective may negatively affect their decision-making in
sexuality. Risk compensation may come into play and increase their vulnerability to
infections and unintended pregnancies [65]. Briefly, this hypothesis suggests that the
introduction of new technological approaches or messages of prevention could reduce the
perception of risk at the broader population level and thus worsen the compliance with
other basic preventive behaviors. In the end, higher risk-taking could offset the protective
benefits theoretically associated to the new approach. For example, risk compensation was
described as an explanation for the initial failure of seat belt laws to prevent road accident
deaths because drivers presumed that wearing a seat belt would protect them from riskier
driving [66,67]. More recently, other researchers have extended the concept of risk
compensation to HIV prevention [68,69]. Campaigns mainly focusing on condom use at the
population level could paradoxically lead to an increase in risky behaviors (such as the
number of sexual partners), if the population perceives condoms to be absolutely safe,
irrespective of specific sexual behaviors. As suggested by a recent community trial in
Uganda, the overall effect of some interventions could be offset by riskier behaviors at the
population level and thus hinder the targeted decrease of HIV incidence [70]. Our results
are consistent with this cited paradoxical effect since the teens that falsely perceived
condoms as being 100% effective were indeed more frequently sexually experienced. More
might have to be done to improve the content and quality of the information conveyed to
teens. While it seems important to give comprehensive information about all preventive
measures, programs should be abstinence centered when targeting teens [71,72]. Teens
should be clear that it is better to avoid rather than to reduce risks and they should be
helped to achieve risk avoidance as it is indeed the only option 100% effective. By focusing
on abstinence one can better avoid the slippery slope of risk compensation [62].
It is true that some studies about abstinence programs have found no statistically
significant effects on sexual behavior [73-75]. However, some of these studies had several
methodological problems, as reviewers themselves recognize, which might account for the
lack of significant findings. Furthermore, other studies do find some abstinence
encouraging programs being effective in both developed and developing countries [76-78].
Besides, even if lack of effects was proven, it should not be a surprise that a few hours of
sex education programs in school are unable to compensate for the opposite message often
conveyed by some parents, media, authorities and society in general [79]. The question is
not whether to promote abstinence among teens, but rather how to achieve this.
Finally, the existing literature shows several dangers in the generalization of sexism. The
American Psychological Association points out several problems associated to the
sexualization of girls [80]. These include cognitive difficulties, mental health problems and
risk behaviors. On the other hand, boys' exposure to pornography increases the risk of
aggressiveness, rape myths and gender stereotypes, all of which may be indirectly harmful
for women and equality between males and females [81-83]. In our sample, we observe
that while sexism is rejected by a majority of girls, it is accepted by most boys. Most males
do not seem to find anything wrong with the misuse of men or women as sexual objects, or
associating masculinity or femininity to having more sexual relationships. Having these
aforementioned opinions and perceptions was likewise associated with a higher incidence
of sexual experience in our study.
There are several limitations in our study. First of all, the cross-sectional nature of any
study does not enable to easily infer causality between dependent and independent
variables. However, some insight is possible to understand the teens' feelings and opinions,
and how these dispositions consequently affect their behavior. Cross-sectional studies do
have the advantage of being less costly and thus more efficient to obtain certain useful
results. Our data do suggest sensible and plausible associations. For example, the
association between perceptions and beliefs about condom effectiveness, sexism and
sexual experience are consistent with the theory of risk compensation as described by
other researchers [69]. In addition, reverse causation, i.e. that early sexual initiation
produces incorrect knowledge about condom effectiveness, does not seem very plausible.
The fact that more boys than girls want to know more about controlling their sexual drive
and more girls than boys want to know more about how to manage their feelings is
consistent with the natural mindset of each sex and what is expected. Aforementioned
socio-demographic data are likewise consistent with existing population data for the
Philippines. In summary, we did not find inconsistent responses nor important alternative
explanations of our findings.
Another possible limitation is that our data is based on self-reported responses. It is
notable, however, that our results are not what one would expect from respondents giving
socially desirable answers. Research indicates that self-reported data such as those found
in Youth Risk Behavior Surveys (YRBS) of the United States can be gathered credibly from
youth surveys [84]. Internal reliability checks were used to identify the percentage of
students who possibly falsify their answers. To obtain truthful answers, students were
made to understand why the survey is important, and procedures were developed to
protect their privacy and allow for anonymous participation.
The survey environment, questionnaire design and content, edit checks, logic within
groups of questions, and some comparisons of our results with other studies give us
confidence on the validity of our data.
As described in the methods section, the in-class and casual setting where the
questionnaires were administered, has presumably minimized invalid responses because
respondent privacy and anonymity were ensured. Furthermore, students were adequately
instructed to leave any discomforting question blank. Students sat as far apart as possible
throughout the survey venue and had an envelope to cover their responses. Only a few skip
patterns were used in the questionnaire and, in any case, they were used in such a way that
the difference in the time needed to complete the questionnaire between youth with or
without sexual experience was insignificant. The questionnaire was designed to suit the
reading level of at least a junior high school student.
The questionnaire was previously piloted on a sample of 180 students in order to assure
not only comprehension and cultural relevance of items, but also to avoid leading questions
that may influence students' responses. In summary, we have no reason to believe that self-
reporting could have compromised our results.
Despite its limitations, our study has several strengths. The analyses we have performed
and presented are consistent with our sample being representative of the Filipino student
youth. To our knowledge, this is the first representative study of a student population in
the Philippines that has studied the issues of relationships, love and sexuality in such
depth. Since STIs are increasing all over the world and STIs are associated to having more
lifelong sexual partners, and the latter with earlier sexual initiation, the study of whether
certain messages are associated to earlier sexual initiation is relevant across different
cultures and countries. There are no studies associating the perception of 100% condom
effectiveness with earlier sexual debut. This is the most novel aspect of our paper, and it is
also the aspect presented with multivariate adjustment. Our data bring up the important
issue that teens themselves are requesting more emphasis on affective aspects of human
sexuality when educating them. Furthermore, beyond the issue of external validity due to
the representative nature of our sample, its large sample size has enabled us to perform
better statistical adjustment where needed, analyses accounting for the clustered sampling
strategy and thus improve the validity of our results.
Go to:

Having a better understanding of what teens feel and think about relationships, love and
sexuality, seems to be an important consideration in planning public health strategies to
address common reproductive health problems in teen populations. This study highlights
that Filipino students do not communicate as much as they would want with their parents
on these issues. It seems that more can be done to improve parent-child communication as
friends and the Internet are not the best information channels. Aside from improving the
information source, more has to be done also to improve the content and quality of the
information conveyed to teens. True informed choice and empowerment goes hand by
hand with accurate information. In particular, condoms should be presented for what they
are: a risk reduction strategy and never for risk avoidance. Survey findings seriously
suggest that some messages conveyed to teens can indeed be harmful as these are
associated with earlier sexual initiation. More public health resources should be spent on
the maintenance of the lifestyle that better protects youth, i.e., in the case of this study, a
lifestyle that is truly risk avoiding and beneficial to a larger section of the targeted teens.
Our data suggests teens are requesting help to achieve a healthier lifestyle, and they are in
fact more interested in character education encompassing affective aspects of sexuality
rather than biological information. Global strategies should seriously take this request into
Nancy Kalish Ph.D.Sticky Bonds

Teenagers in Love
Parents' reactions to teen romance.
Posted Jun 02, 2009

Friends from our childhood or adolescence are special, no matter how much time has
elapsed between visits. These compelling connections are the result of shared roots during
the formative years. Our childhood friends and teenage sweethearts experienced with us all
the wonderful, horrible, boring, and embarrassing moments that helped to make us who
we are today.

Yet, when children are young, parents may regard these relationships as insignificant. If the
family must move to a new community and the children's close friends must be left behind,
so what? They will make new friends, the parents assure them. But, is a friend as
interchangeable as a new toy for an old one, or is there more to friendship than that? Why
are we so elated to rediscover long lost friends in our adult years if, as some parents
believe, they were so dispensable to us as children?

Even more belittled by many parents is a teenager's (or preteen's) love for a boyfriend or
girlfriend. Adults refer to these relationships with demeaning language, calling them "just
puppy love," and these romantic bonds are not taken seriously. Parents question the ability
of teenagers to know what love is, yet they accept their teenagers' statements, "I love you,
Mom & Dad," with full appreciation and at face value. If adults accept that teenagers can
love parents truly, then shouldn't they also accept that teen romances are "real" love?

Recreational dating is relatively new. Teenagers many years ago married their first
sweethearts right out of high school. These men and women of the World War II
Generation married at younger ages than their Baby Boomer children or their Generation X
or Millennial grandchildren. But education has become prolonged, so marriage is later.

The age of puberty, however, has dropped. Whatever the reasons for this, reaching puberty
influences the age of first love and first sexual experience. It is rare now to marry a first
love. Today's teenagers date not for mate selection but for fun. However, the first love
experience is no less powerful than it was in the 1940's.

Adults who underestimate the strength of the bond-- or the impact of the loss -- of a first
love may have forgotten what a blow it was when they lost their own first loves. They may
even try to comfort teenagers with lighthearted lessons: a surprising number of men and
women wrote to me to bitterly complain about parents who joked years ago, "Don't worry!
Boyfriends/girlfriends are like buses... a new one comes along every ten minutes!" This was
not helpful, and it was not funny. The loss of a first love can be so crushing to some
teenagers that they become suicidal.

The pain of the breakup will subside with time, but the love may stay buried and dormant
for decades. While most men and women find satisfying partners after first love breakups,
there are adults who spend their married years aware that "something is missing." They
continue to think about their lost first loves. Perhaps if they had married their first loves
when they were younger, they tell me, they could have formed lasting and fulfilling
marriages, but they will never know. These romances were interrupted - often by their
parents' interference.

In my recent survey of 1600 people (who had never tried a reunion with a lost love), ages
18 to 92, 56% of the participants said they would not want to go back to their first loves,
19% were not sure -- but 25% said they would!

Even the adults who had no current interest in their first loves, including those who had
only bitter memories, revealed that these early romances influenced their life-long
attitudes about love, and even about themselves.

The longer I study lost loves and lost love reunions, the clearer it becomes to me how
important young love really is. First love, young love, is indeed real love. This intense love
does not come along every ten minutes. For some people, it may come only once in a

Copyright 2010 by Nancy Kalish, Ph.D.

Revised 2013

Study: Teen Love Hurts


Feb. 15,

The most famous youthful romance in the English-speaking world, that star-crossed love of
Romeo and Juliet, was a tragedy. Now researchers have published a huge study of real-life
adolescents in love.

The results suggest that on balance, falling in love makes adolescents more depressed, and
more prone to delinquency and alcohol abuse than they would have been if theyd avoided

The reported effect on depression is small, but its bigger for girls than boys. The
researchers suggest it could be one reason teen girls show higher rates of depression than
teen boys do, a difference that persists into adulthood.

Teen Love Ain't Grand

This is not exactly the view of romance that prevails around Valentines Day. Researchers
whove studied teenage love say that smaller studies had shown teen romance can cause
emotional trouble, but that the new work overlooked some good things.

The study was done by sociologists Kara Joyner of Cornell University and J. Richard Udry of
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They presented the results in the December
issue of the Journal of Health & Social Behavior.

Their results are based on responses from about 8,200 adolescents across the country who
were interviewed twice, about a year apart, about a wide variety of things. The kids were
ages 12 to 17 at the first interview.
To measure levels of depression, the researchers examined adolescents answers to 11
questions about the previous week, such as how often they felt they couldnt shake off the
blues, felt lonely or sad or got bothered by things that normally wouldnt faze them.

Researchers Compared Teens In and Out of Romance

To see what loves got to do with it, the researchers compared responses from adolescents
who didnt report any romantic involvement at either interview with those who reported it
at both interviews. They looked at how much depression levels changed between
interviews for each group.

The finding: The romantically involved adolescents showed a bigger increase in depression
levels, or a smaller decrease, than uninvolved teens.

The difference wasnt much. For boys of all ages, it was about one-half point on a 33-point
scale. Girls were hit harder, with a 2-point difference for girls whod been 12 at the first
interview, and diminishing with age to about a half-point difference for girls whod been

Contradicts Adult Findings

The results were a surprise, because studies of adults have shown married people tend to
be less depressed than single ones, Joyner said. So why would love lower adolescent mood?

By analyzing the adolescents answers to other questions, Joyner and Udry found evidence
for three possible factors: deteriorating relationships with parents, poorer performance in
school, and breakups of relationships.

In fact, it appeared that for boys, romance made a difference in depression only if theyd
had a breakup between interviews. For girls, in contrast, the biggest impact from romance
seemed to come from a rockier relationship with Mom and Dad. That was especially so
among younger girls, where the bump in depression was biggest.

To Joyner, it makes sense that if a young daughter is dating, her parents may be concerned
about her choice of partner or what she is doing with him. Presumably, their concern leads
to arguments. That would be my guess.

But its only a guess. The study cant prove what caused what. Maybe girls feeling less loved
at home were more likely to seek romance with a guy, rather than the other way around.

Alcohol and Delinquency, Too

Joyner and Udry also found that romance was associated with a small decrease in
happiness for girls, as assessed by different questions, and a small increase in alcohol
problems and delinquency in both sexes. They didnt look for explanations for the latter
two findings.

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a University of Michigan psychologist who studies depression, said

the studys findings on that topic made sense. Many researchers who work on adolescent
depression have thought that something about dating behavior and dating relationships
can be toxic to girls health, she said.

The idea is that girls base their self-esteem on these relationships more than boys do and
will contort themselves to make these relationships work, Nolen-Hoeksema said. I think
theres something to it.

It makes sense that dating could be one reason why female depression rates start to exceed
male rates around age 14 or so, she said. But lots of things can promote depression, she
cautioned, and not every girl whos dating is depressed.

Critic: Study Too Negative

Reed Larson, who studies adolescent emotion at the University of Illinois in Urbana, thinks
the new study focuses unfairly on loves downside.

His own work has tracked adolescent emotions hour-by-hour and day-by-day by having
participants wear beepers, which prompt them at random times to write down how they
are feeling.

Those results show adolescent love provokes a fusillade of strong feelings, both positive
and negative, Larson said. Yes, theres anger, worry, hurt, anxiety, jealousy and frustration.
But theres also happiness, joy, euphoria, thrills and, well, love.

Those can oscillate within the same day, Larson said. The same child will tell us at one
moment in time theyre just on top of the world because they just had this great talk with
John, and then a few hours later, theyre totally depressed because John is suddenly seeing
somebody else. Then theyll come back up because they had a good talk with John, and
things are back on track.

And these feelings are a big part of adolescent life, Larson and colleagues found. In a sample
of 14-year-olds to 17-year-olds, for example, girls said real or fantasized relationships with
boys caused 34 percent of the strong emotions theyd reported. For boys the figure was 25

Even the lower figure is about twice the rate attributed to school and about three times the
rate for family or same-sex friends.

Most of the emotions traced to girl-boy romance were positive, but 42 percent were
negative, including anger and depression.
Wyndol Furman, a psychology professor at the University of Denver who studies
adolescent romance, also cautioned that studies like Joyners tell only half the story.

Its not like romantic relationships hold only danger for teens, without any benefit, he said.

I dont buy that, any more than the idea that driving a car is only dangerous, he said.
There are risks. But are you going to give your car up?

Teenagers in love
Susan Moore considers the research and what it means for effective parenting.

The singer of a plaintive hit song from the 1950s croons Each night I ask the stars up above, Why
must I be a teenager in love?, as he bemoans the ups and downs of his romance, one minute on
top of the world, next minute in the deepest slough of despondency. Such angst!
Has anything changed? In modern pop songs, young people still sing about their crushes,
unrequited loves and romantic break-ups; about feeling awkward, unsure, in despair, overwhelmed,
joyous and inspired, although these days the sexual imagery is much more obvious. And it can
appear that the tender feelings of first love are at odds with todays world of out there sexuality.
Adolescents are heavy consumers of online pornography, they are sexting, and using apps to meet
partners for casual sex hook-ups. They may post on Facebook about their sexual and romantic
successes and failures. Research has not yet caught up with the long-term implications of these new
ways of courting, but it does seem that falling in love and romantic relationships are still part of the
developmental timetable for many adolescents.
Lets look at what is known. The US-based National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add
Health), involving a representative sample of thousands of school children in Grades 7 to 12, found
that over 80 per cent of those aged 14 years and older were or had been in a romantic relationship,
including a small number (23 per cent) in same-sex relationships (Carver et al., 2003; Grieger et
al., 2014). Many of these relationships were short term, especially among younger adolescents, but
a significant number were a year or more in duration. Evidence that these relationships were socially
normative was shown by the finding that in most cases, parents had met their childs romantic
partner and the couples had told others of their romantic status. There is limited data on romantic
relationships in other developed countries, but existing research suggests similar percentages to the
US data, although with somewhat older age groups (e.g. Moore et al., 2012).
The normative nature of adolescent romantic relationships means that those young people without a
girlfriend or boyfriend can feel stressed or different (Scanlan et al., 2012). Given that adolescence is
a time when there is a great deal of pressure to conform to peer norms, young people who are not
linking up romantically can feel lonely and out of step with their peers. For example, on the internet
site, an anonymous young woman asks: Ive never had a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Would you assume that there is something bad or wrong with that person that makes people not
want to go out with them? I think its because I am ugly. I am not fat however. What is wrong with

On a different advice site (, this young man similarly questions why he is different:
I am 21 and never had a girlfriend. Most of my friends are in a relationship. I feel kind of depressed
and that I would never have a girlfriend. What should I do? Ive asked a couple of girls whom I like to
go out with me in the past and they declined.

Of course, not every young person is interested in romantic relationships. Some feel they are not
ready, some want to concentrate on their studies or sport, others are more tempted by the casual
sex culture of temporary hook-ups. Nevertheless, most adolescents begin their sexual lives within
the context of a romantic relationship and generally, involvement in romantic relationships in
adolescence is developmentally appropriate and healthy (Collins et al., 2009).
What happens when teenagers fall in love?
Falling in love is an emotional upheaval at any age, but for adolescents the feelings are likely to be
even more difficult to manage. Teenage bodies and brains are maturing at a rate not experienced
since infancy. There is a growth spurt, development of secondary sex characteristics and young
people change in appearance from child to adult. Physical awkwardness often results from growth
asynchronies; young people can feel embarrassed and self-conscious about the sexualisation of
their bodies or their perceived inadequacies in terms of often-unrealistic body ideals. As well, the
adolescent brain has been described as a work in progress, with certain areas maturing more
quickly than others, leading to potential mismatches between physical, emotional and cognitive
development. For example, there can be incongruities between adult bodily appearance, increasing
sex drive and the brain development required for mature decision-making and self-regulation of
behaviour and emotions. The executive functioning area of the brain the prefrontal cortex is
among the last areas of the brain to fully mature, usually sometime in the twenties (Petanjek et al.,
2011). Adolescence therefore becomes a time of diminished prefrontal cortical control, with the
heightened possibility of risk-taking and poor judgement decisions, especially in environments
described as reward-sensitive, where the temptations of immediate feel-good experiences are high,
such as in romantic and sexual situations (Braams et al., 2015; Suleiman & Harden, 2016).
Hormonal changes, triggered by brain and body developments, are strongly implicated in the intense
feelings of sexual attraction and falling in love. Testosterone and oestrogen male and female sex
hormones are associated with heightened sexual urges, while the hormones oxytocin and
vasopressin are implicated in attachment and bonding. During puberty, the volume of these
circulating sex hormones in the body rises dramatically. In girls, the ovaries increase their production
of oestrogen sixfold and in boys, the testes produce 20 times the amount of testosterone.
Both sexes have male and female hormones circulating in the bloodstream, but during adolescence
a boys testosterone level becomes 20 to 60 per cent higher than that of a girl, while her oestrogen
level becomes 20 to 30 per cent higher than his. These hormones have strong effects on mood and
libido. Young people are hormonally primed toward being sexually attracted to others but,
especially in early adolescence, they are not used to the feelings associated with the rapid increases
and fluctuations in their hormone levels. High concentrations of certain hormones for ones age, or
rapid fluctuations of hormone levels may trigger more negative moods and greater mood variability
(Buchanan et al., 1992). Emotions associated with being in love or in lust are likely to be confused
and confusing, even overwhelming for some (Temple-Smith et al., 2016).
Its not only the sex hormones that are involved in falling in love. Ortigue and his colleagues (2010)
used brain imaging to show that when a person falls in love, 12 areas of the brain work in tandem to
release euphoria-inducing chemicals such as dopamine, adrenaline and serotonin. Adrenaline is a
stress hormone, causing sweating, heart palpitations and dry mouth just catching a glimpse of the
new love can trigger these bodily sensations. Dopamine stimulates desire and pleasurable feelings,
and has been described as a feel good hormone with similar effects to the drug cocaine. Fisher et
al. (2006) found heightened levels of dopamine in the brains of couples newly in love. Further,
Marazziti and Canale (2004) examined levels of serotonin in the bloodstreams of couples in love and
people with obsessive-compulsive disorders. Their finding that levels were similarly heightened in
the two groups led these researchers to conclude that serotonin level is associated with those
constant thoughts about the loved one that are part of being love struck.
In another illustration of how some of these effects are manifest, a study by Brand and colleagues
(2007) compared newly in love adolescents with a control group who were unpartnered. The in
love group scored higher than the controls on hypomania, a mood state (with accompanying
thoughts and behaviours) in which emotions are more labile: euphoric one minute, in despair the
next. The diary entries of the adolescent love birds showed they had more positive morning and
evening moods than the controls, shorter sleep times but better quality sleep, lowered daytime
sleepiness and better concentration during the day.
Falling in love takes some getting used to, all those different emotions, mood swings, needs and
desires. Nevertheless, through their romantic relationships, adolescents have the potential for
psychological growth as they learn about themselves and other people, gain experience in how to
manage these feelings and develop the skills of intimacy. They also face new risks and challenges.
These positive and negative aspects of adolescent romantic relationships are discussed below.
Psychosocial development
Lifespan developmental theorist Erik Erikson (1968) viewed crushes and youthful romances as
important contributors to adolescent self-understanding and identity formation. He described
teenage falling in love as a form of self-development rather than true intimacy. Adolescents,
becoming more self-aware as their cognitive powers develop, can try out their grown-up identities
with romantic partners and through feedback from the partners responses and behaviours, gradually
clarify self-image. The endless talking (and now texting) that often accompanies teen romances is a
way of experimenting with different forms of self and testing their effect on the other person.
As well as aiding identity development, adolescent romantic relationships both short term and
longer term can provide positive learning experiences about the self, for example through
influencing self-esteem and beliefs about attractiveness and self-worth, and raising status in the peer
group (Zimmer-Gembeck et al., 2001; 2004). They can assist young people in renegotiating and
developing more mature and less emotionally dependent relationships with their parents, as a
precursor for independent living. When there is good will and warmth between the partners, romantic
relationships offer a safe environment for learning about and experimenting with sexuality and
sexual orientation (Collins et al., 2009). Teenage romantic relationships are, in a sense, a training
ground for adult intimacy, providing an opportunity for learning to manage strong emotions, to
negotiate conflict, to communicate needs and to respond to a partners needs (Scanlan et al., 2012).
Challenges and problems
On the downside, romantic relationships can sometimes lead to unhealthy outcomes. Young people
can become too exclusive when they pair up, cutting themselves off from friendship and support
networks in ways that do not advance optimal development. Identity formation may be compromised
if a teenager closes off developmental options through a partnership in which unhealthy living
choices are made, or through early, unplanned parenthood.
Adolescents can be exposed to abusive and violent interactions or unwanted or coerced sexual
activity within their romantic relationships (Mulford & Giordano, 2008). Aggression between romantic
partners is common, with boys as likely to report abuse behaviour as girls. Collins et al.s (2009)
review indicates that, depending on the sample surveyed, 10 to 48 per cent of adolescents
experience physical aggression and 25 to 50 per cent report psychological aggression from their
romantic partner, including being sworn at, insulted and threatened. These days, aggression and
bullying also occur online, for example, vengeful ex-partners have been known to share private
photos or information on social media, causing embarrassment, humiliation or worse to the victim.
Some teens appear to be more accepting of these situations than is healthy, for example interpreting
jealousy and overly possessive behaviours as reflections of love.
Sexual coercion within romantic relationships is relatively common. A national survey of over 2000
Australian secondary students in Years 10, 11 and 12 found that among those who were sexually
active, one-quarter had experienced unwanted sex (Mitchell et al., 2014). Reasons given for having
sex when they did not want to included being too drunk to say no (49 per cent), frightened (28 per
cent) or pressured by their partner (53 per cent). A US study of over 750 female students found
almost 50 per cent had had at least one experience of unwanted sex, 70 per cent as part of a casual
hook-up, and 57 per cent in a committed romantic relationship (Garcia et al., 2012). Regretted sex
is also not an uncommon phenomenon among teenagers (e.g. Skinner et al., 2008).
Other challenges facing young people seeking or participating in romantic relationships include
unrequited love and breaking up. In the case of unrequited love, fantasies about the other can be
intense and obsessional, sometimes leading to misinterpretations that the feelings are reciprocated.
In extreme cases this may result in maladjusted acting-out behaviours, such as aggression and
stalking (Leitz & Theriot, 2005), but more commonly the distress is turned inwards, contributing to
depression and low self-esteem, sometimes with the risk of self-harm.
Break-ups are a very common feature of adolescent romantic relationships, some of which last only
a few weeks. Among a large sample of young people in their early twenties in Australia and Hong
Kong, 80 per cent had experienced a break-up (Moore et al., 2012). The impact of splitting up may
not be particularly severe or long-lasting, especially in the case of short-term liaisons. Nevertheless,
some teenagers are more vulnerable than others. Several studies have shown romantic break-ups
associated with depression, particularly among those who have already experienced mood disorders
(Davila, 2008; Welsh et al., 2003). In our 2012 study, 40 per cent of participants felt very hurt
following their relationship break-up, even though the majority of these dissolutions were self- or
mutually initiated. Break-ups were more distressing if they were partner-initiated, and among
adolescents with more clingy relationship styles and greater tendencies toward negative mood.
Usually, time heals and experience teaches. Connolly and McIsaac (2009) researched break-ups
among Canadian adolescents and found that the most common reasons given for ending a
relationship related to unmet affiliation, intimacy, sexual or interdependence needs. In other words,
young people were moving on when their relationships were not fulfilling, and in the process,
hopefully, were learning more about themselves and others. Over time, and through talking with
others, including parents, peers and partners, adolescents can develop cognitive frameworks for
better understanding the nature of intimate relationships and learn to cope with their ups and downs.
One example comes from a study by Montgomery (2005) of nearly 500 young people aged 12 to 24
years, in which it was shown that older adolescents were less prone to romantic idealisation than
younger ones. They were more realistic in their expectations of a romantic partner, so less liable to
be disappointed. With experience, if all goes well, love becomes a little less blind.
Protective factors
With age and maturity come more realistic expectations and, hopefully, stronger capacities to make
discerning partner choices, communicate and negotiate with partners and recover from relationship
set backs and break ups. Hopefully is the operative word here, because we know that people of any
age can be undone by their heartbreaks and poor romantic choices. Nevertheless there are some
protective factors likely to assist young people to negotiate first romantic relationships and survive
Early sex education is important, ideally emanating from the home and supported by the school
curriculum. Its a bit late for the talk on the eve of a young persons first date. Education that goes
beyond the mechanics of sex and emphasises mutual respect, decision-making and the meaning of
consent should help young people to resist relationship bullying and sexual coercion. School and
community-based programmes that focus on teaching the characteristics of healthy romantic
relationships, recognising gender-based stereotypes, improving conflict-management and
communication skills, and decreasing acceptance of partner violence can effectively reduce dating
violence in adolescent relationships (Foshee et al., 1998). In addition, parental modelling of
respectful interrelationships sets a pattern for young people to aim for in their own interactions.
Family and peer discussions that normalise teenage romantic relations and breaking up also
help young people to frame their expectations and experiences in context. Some teenagers may
need extra encouragement to maintain links with their friends and peer group, and to keep up their
sports and hobbies when they are in the throes of an intense romance. But it is important that they
do maintain these support links in order to help them resist the kinds of relationships that are too
interdependent and have an obsessional quality. When this kind of relationship breaks up, there is a
greater risk of distress and depression. Maintaining links with friends provides a distraction from
troubles and a sounding board for adolescents to discuss their romantic successes, failures and
In todays world, cyber safety is a key issue for all of us, but especially young people. Education
about topics such as the potential dangers of sexting, online sexual predators and the distortion of
romantic relationships depicted on pornography sites is essential for adolescents. Parental
monitoring of online activity, especially among children and younger teenagers, may be advisable,
and this requires that parents too become educated in new media savvy about Facebook,
Instagram, Tinder and the like. While adolescents need their privacy, it is important for parents to be
watchful for warning signs of obsessive and secretive internet use. The heady emotions of falling in
love can lead teenagers into unwise activity; the problem with the internet is that sexts and social
media posts can come back to haunt them well after a relationship is over.
In summary, adolescent romantic relationships with all their ups and downs have the capacity to
be growth-promoting, confidence-boosting and healthy experiences that teach young people about
the give and take of intimacy. They also provide traps for young players. And while we cannot (and
should not) shield the adolescents
in our care from all the hurts and disappointments that life throws up, there are protective factors that
limit the likelihood of serious harm from toxic partnerships or distressing break-ups.Watchful, kindly
and respectful parenting, strong friendship networks and relationship-oriented sex education can all
play their part in helping adolescents enjoy their romantic adventures and learn from them.
Meet the author
Its a long time since my own adolescence, but like so many people I will never forget the heady
emotions of first love, the embarrassing things I did and the mistakes I made. The world has
changed greatly since my time, but from over 40 years of research into the adolescent experience
(as well as being a mother, step-mother and grandmother to adolescents) I can see that much
remains the same. There is more freedom and tolerance of youthful romantic and sexual
experimentation, but the risks of poor decision-making persist. Some of these are new, like being the
victim of a sexual predator or experiencing revenge porn on the internet. Some are as old as
history, like regretted sex or unplanned pregnancy. Parents, teachers and counsellors of young
people can offer more effective support if they become familiar with the latest research on
adolescent romance, including the role of brain development, social attitudes, and online culture. In
a recent book, Sexuality in Adolescence: The Digital Generation (2016, Taylor & Francis) my co-
authors and I examine these issues in detail.
Susan Moore
is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia