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Telling It Like It Is:
Teen Perspectives on Romantic Relationships
By Lina Guzman, Ph.D., Erum Ikramullah, B.A./B.S., Jennifer Manlove, Ph.D., Kristen Peterson, B.A., and Harriet J. Scarupa, M.S.October 2009 Overview. Teen romantic relationships have become a pervasive part of popular culture, from TV shows, movies, and books to blogs and social networking sites. But the attention paid to these rela- tionships extends beyond the parameters of popular culture. Romance, teen style, has become of increasing interest to anyone concerned with healthy adolescent development—with good reason. The initi- ation of romantic relationships represents a key developmental task of adolescence. Research suggests that several critical dimensions of adolescent romantic and sexual relationships—such as how teens define the different types of relationships, how serious they consider these relationships, and how they communicate within them—may influence when teens first have sex and whether they use contraception. In turn, these considerations have a bearing on teens’ risks of having or fathering a child or of acquiring a sexually transmitted infection (STI).6,9,13,16 Moreover, relationship habits and patterns developed during adoles- cence can affect later adult relationships,2,8 a finding that highlights the importance of developing healthy relationship behaviors during the teen years. The majority of teens in high school have been involved in a romantic relationship,2 and almost one-half of high school-aged teens report that they have had at least one sexual experience.4 Learning more about how teens view these relationships can provide insights that help policy makers, program providers, parents, and others promote healthy youth development in general and address the problems of teen pregnancy and STIs in particular. Toward this end, Child Trends recently conducted focus groups to hear what teens themselves have to say about these relationships. Because of relatively high levels of early sexual activity, teenage childbearing, and STIs among racial and ethnic minority groups,1,3,11 the teens that we selected for this project were African American and Latino. We conducted seven focus groups with a total of 52 teen boys and girls living in Washington, DC. This Research Brief summarizes findings from the focus groups. What we learned was both encouraging and sobering. In general, the teens showed that they knew what a healthy teen relationship should look like; that is, it should be marked by respect, honesty, fidelity, good communication, and the absence of vio- lence. Yet, at the same time, many of the teens expressed pessimism about their chances of experiencing that type of relationship themselves. Nor did they know many adults whose romantic relationships were worthy of emulation. OVERARCHING THEMES
Four major themes about teens’ views on romantic relationships emerged from the focus groups: 1) teens have developed novel ways to describe their relationships; 2) teens have a clear understanding of what makes a romantic relationship a healthy one; 3) despite this understanding, teens have low expectations for experiencing these qualities in their own relationships; and 4) teens see many sim- ilarities between the ways that they think about romantic relationships and the ways that adults define their own relationships. We provide more detail on these themes in the following sections of this brief. To capture some of the flavor of the language teens used in discussing romantic relationships, we have included some actual quotes from the focus groups in a number of places. THEME ONE: Teens have developed novel ways to describe romantic relationships. Teens were asked to describe romantic relation- ships among their peers, as well as the terms that they use to describe and talk about the...