Healthy Relationships in Adolescence

During adolescence, young people learn how to form safe and healthy relationships with friends, parents, caregivers, teachers, and romantic partners. Adolescents often try on different identities and roles, and all of these relationships contribute to their identity formation. Peers, in particular, play a big role in creating an identity during adolescence.1 However, relationships with caring adults—including parents or caregivers, mentors, or coaches—are the building blocks for all other relationships, providing examples for how a young person handles them.

This page provides information on healthy and unhealthy adolescent relationships including: dating, friendships, and relationships with parents or caregivers. Broadly, healthy relationships are ones where adolescents can safely feel and express respect for themselves and others. This often comes from mutual trust, honesty, good communication, being understanding and calm during arguments, and consent. Unhealthy relationships, by contrast, usually have a power imbalance (for example there is not consent, mutual trust, compromise, or honesty), and one or both people in the relationship may have trouble communicating and controlling their anger. Some unhealthy relationships become physically, emotionally, or sexually violent. This page also links to further information about talking with adolescents about relationships and tools to facilitate these conversations.

Dating

Knowing how to establish and maintain healthy romantic relationships can help adolescents develop into well-functioning adults with healthy adult relationships.2 Healthy dating during the teenage years can be an important way to develop social skills, learn about other people, and grow emotionally. These relationships also can play a role in supporting adolescents’ ability to develop positive relationships in other areas including: in school, with employers, and with partners during adulthood. Although young people tend to become more interested in dating around their mid-teens and become more involved in dating relationships during high school, it is also normal for adolescents not to be in a relationship. In fact, adolescents date less now than they did in the past. This change is most striking for 12th-grade students, where the percentage of students in 12th grade who have never dated increased from 15 percent in 1992 to 49 percent in 2017.3  Among adolescents 13- to 17-years-old, nearly two-thirds have never been in a dating or romantic relationship.4  Adolescent sexual activity also has decreased from previous decades. The percentage of U.S. high school students who had ever had sex decreased from 54 percent in 1990 to 38 percent in 2019.5, 6

Meeting partners online
Despite media attention, few adolescents meet their romantic partners online. In 2015, only eight percent of all teenagers had met a romantic partner online. Of course, many teens have never dated anyone, but among those with dating experience, 24 percent dated or hooked up with someone they first met online. Among this 24 percent, half of the teens had met just one romantic partner online, while the other half had met more than one partner online.4

Friendships

Adolescence is a period of rapid change7—physically, emotionally, and socially—and relationships with friends play an important role in the lives of adolescents as they become increasingly independent, develop their own identity, and grapple with self-esteem. Friendships in younger adolescence may be driven by a desire to “fit in” with peers, and these youth may change what they do or are interested in to match their friends’ interests. In later adolescence, youth have more diverse friend groups and have independent preferences that they aren’t afraid to express within their social circles.8-11

Positive friendships provide youth with companionship, support, and a sense of belonging. They can encourage or reinforce healthy behavior,12 like positive academic engagement; help youth develop positive social skills13 like cooperation, communication, conflict resolution, and resisting negative peer pressure; and evidence suggests that positive friendships in adolescence can lay the groundwork for successful adult relationships, including romantic relationships.14

Relationships with Parents and Caregivers

The relationship between children and their parents or caregivers (such as guardians, aunts and uncles, or grandparents) is one of the most important relationships in a child's life, often lasting well into adulthood. In adolescence, this relationship changes dramatically as youth seek increased independence from their families and begin to make their own decisions. With increased independence comes the possibility of increased risk, both positive and negative, and teens need parents or caregivers to help them navigate the challenges that adolescence presents. Though some amount of conflict between adolescents and their parents is normal,15 adolescents still rely on parents or caregivers to provide emotional support and set limits, both of which are linked to positive adolescent development and parent-child closeness.16, 17

Although teens have increasing independence from their families, parents and caregivers still play a large and vital role in their lives; parents and caregivers help shape adolescents’ self-control, plans for their future, moral and social values, and their broader world view. As children grow, parenting shifts from making decisions for the younger child to helping older children and adolescents make decisions on their own, while minimizing the chance that they engage in high-risk behavior. Research shows that parents continue to have more influence than peers on many important outcomes, including whether adolescents smoke, use alcohol or other drugs, or have sexual intercourse.18, 19

Footnotes

1 Wildsmith, E., Barry, M., Manlove, J., & Vaughn, B. (2013). Dating and sexual relationships. Child Trends. https://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/2013-04DatingSexualRelationships.pdf - PDF back to top

2 Suleiman, A. B., & Harden, K. P. (2016). The importance of sexual and romantic development in understanding the developmental neuroscience of adolescence. Developmental cognitive neuroscience17, 145–147. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcn.2015.12.007 back to top

3 Child Trends. (2019). Dating Among Teens [Data indicator]. Retrieved from https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/dating back to top

4 Lenhart, A., Smith, A., & Anderson, M. (2015). Teens, technology and romantic relationships. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2015/10/PI_2015-10-01_teens-technology-romance_FINAL.pdf - PDF back to top

5 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1992). Sexual Behavior Among High School Students -- United States, 1990. MMWR Weekly, 40(51-52), 885-888. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00015817.htm back to top

6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Youth Risk Behavior Survey – Data Summary & Trends Report 2009-2019. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/pdf/YRBSDataSummaryTrendsReport2019-508.pdf back to top

7 Vijayakumar, N., Op de Macks, Z., Shirtcliff, E. A., & Pfeifer, J. H. (2018). Puberty and the human brain: Insights into adolescent development. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews92, 417–436. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2018.06.004 back to top

8 Rose, A. J., Glick, G. C., & Schwartz-Mette, R. A. (2016). Girls' and boys' problem talk: Implications for emotional closeness in friendships. Developmental Psychology52(4), 629-639. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000096 back to top

9 Graber, R., Turner, R., & Madill, A. (2016). Best friends and better coping: Facilitating psychological resilience through boys' and girls' closest friendships. British Journal of Psychology, 107(2), 338–358. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12135 back to top

10 Juvonen, J., Espinoza, G., & Knifsend, C. (2012). The role of peer relationships in student academic and extracurricular engagement. In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 387-401). Springer. back to top

11 Long, E., Barrett, T. S., & Lockhart, G. (2017). Network-behavior dynamics of adolescent friendships, alcohol use, and physical activity. Health Psychology36(6), 577–586. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/hea0000483 back to top

12 Wang. M., Kiuru, N., Degol, J. L., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2018). Friends, academic achievement, and school engagement during adolescence: A social network approach to peer influence and selection effects. Learning and Instruction, 58, 148-160. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2018.06.003 back to top

13  Bukowski, W., M., Bagwell, C., Castellanos, M., & Persram, R. (2020). Friendship in Adolescence. The Encyclopedia of Child and Adolescent Development. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119171492.wecad403 back to top

14 Allen, J. P., Narr, R. K., Kansky, J., & Szwedo, D. E. (2019). Adolescent peer relationship qualities as predictors of long-term romantic life satisfaction. Child Development, 91(1), 327-340. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13193 back to top

15 Branje, S. (2018). Development of Parent–Adolescent Relationships: Conflict Interactions as a Mechanism of Change. Child Development Perspectives, 12 (3), 171-176. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12278 back to top

16 Boudreault-Bouchard, A., Dion, J., Hains, J., & Vandermeerschen, J. (2013). Impact of parental emotional support and coercive control on adolescents' self-esteem and psychological distress: Results of a four-year longitudinal study. Journal of Adolescence, 36 (4), 695-704. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2013.05.002 back to top

17 Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. (2009). Marital quality and parent-adolescent relationships: Effects on adolescent and young adult well-being. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://aspe.hhs.gov/basic-report/marital-quality-and-parent-adolescent-relationships-effects-adolescent-and-young-adult-well-being back to top

18 van Hoorn, J., McCormick, E. M., Rogers, C. R., Ivory, S. L., & Telzer, E. H. (2018). Differential effects of parent and peer presence on neural correlates of risk taking in adolescence. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 13 (9), 945-955. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsy071 back to top

19 McNeely, C., & Blanchard, J. (2009). The teen years explained: A guide to healthy adolescent development. John Hopkins University. https://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/center-for-adolescent-health/_docs/TTYE-Guide.pdf - PDF back to top