What the Science Says about Teen Relationships
As children move through adolescence and into adulthood, they begin to depend on different people for support and guidance. Teens begin seeking support outside of the home during adolescence. However, research also shows they will continue to seek their parents’ guidance throughout their life.
We’ve known this for years. And the science behind developmental and social psychology offers some interesting insights about how relationships change throughout adolescence.
As a parent, it’s more than likely you were one of your child’s “best friends” when they were little. They relied almost entirely on you for entertainment, warmth, guidance, and support. As young children develop into teenagers, you may find that they begin to gradually distance themselves from you. This is a normal part of adolescent development.
Teens will always rely on parents first and foremost for warmth, guidance, and support (but maybe a little less entertainment). It just so happens that during adolescence they begin to seek out additional warmth, guidance, and support from others. This may be friends or romantic partners.
In fact, several studies have shown that a strong, secure bond between parents and teens encourages them to befriend supportive and kind peers and romantic partners. This is because teens who receive support and kindness from their parents are more likely to behave this way toward their friends and partners.
Teens’ Personal Relationships Online
The wide use of smartphones, social media, and video games have also changed the way teens interact with one another. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of teens have made a new friend online. More than half of teens report texting with friends on a daily basis.
These types of digital interactions have benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, they can increase teens’ self-esteem and provide them with another means of seeking support from peers. On the other hand, they may expose teens to cyberbullying, sexting, and inappropriate content.
A Balanced Parenting Style Positively Impacts Teens’ Relationships
Research clearly shows that raising your teens with a parenting style that using a balanced parenting style can have a very positive impact on teens’ personal relationships. This parenting style can lead to better relationships between teens and their friends. Importantly, it also leads to stronger relationships between parents and teens.
The warmth and support that balanced parents provide to their teens also prompts them to seek out romantic partners who are warm and supportive. When this support is paired with open and honest communication about sex, teens are more likely to delay having sex with a romantic partner until they are ready and practice safer sex.
There are well-established methods for determining a parent’s approach to parenting (see here for an overview). But how do we begin to understand the quality of teens’ diverse personal relationships?
Scientists typically have teens answer detailed surveys like the Assessment of Interpersonal Relationships. This survey measures a variety of relationship characteristics, such as companionship, trust, conflict, and respect, among teens’ male and female peers.
In study after study, a balanced parenting style tends to lead to respectful and trusting friendships and romantic relationships for teens. Authoritarian (“You’ll do as I say!”) or permissive (“Do whatever you want”) parenting styles may result in more conflict between teens and their friends or significant others. Overall, this tells us that using a balanced parenting style will likely help teens have happy, healthy, and successful relationships with others today and well into the future