Adolescent Romantic and Sexual Behavior:
What We Know and Where We Go
University of Utah
In my work as clinician with an exclusively adolescent clientele, romantic relations are a prominent theme. I regularly struggle with what I can say and do that will be useful and developmentally supportive. In a recent session with a 17-year-old gay adolescent who I see in an outpatient setting, we focused on his reluctance to become involved romantically or to even have male friends until he leaves home because he doesn't want to upset his mother, who knows and disapproves of his sexual orientation. On the same day, working with a group of adolescents in co-ed residential treatment for substance abuse, we (the group) focused on two members who had been surreptitiously kissing and touching in the laundry room for several weeks. With my outpatient client, I challenged him to consider that maybe he was using his mother as an excuse to avoid intimacy and to forestall dealing more concretely with what it means to be gay. With my group, I tried to gently suggest that the romantic relationship between the two group members was counter-therapeutic; that the young woman was looking for a domineering male to validate her and help her avoid feelings of despair and self-loathing, re-enacting old patterns established with previous men in her life. The young man was eager to accommodate her wishes.
In both situations, I would like to believe that my interventions were based on a solid understanding of clinical theory, the particular circumstances of my clients, and the role of romantic relations in adolescent developmental and psychopathological processes. Unfortunately, how I talk with my adolescent clients about their romantic relations is not well informed by research or clinical theory. I am not confident that I know how to best help my adolescent clients move forward in their interpersonal relations toward satisfying adult relationships, higher levels of intimacy, and more stable and enduring commitments.