Teenage Dating: Romance and the Brain

My daughter seems to be “dating” a different boy every few months. She is in high school and we have talked a lot about respectful relationships etc.. and she seems to be doing all this okay but she doesn’t seem to stay in relationships very long. Should I be worried?


Sue, Kentucky

Teenage relationship holding hands


Most of us parents are never truly ready for our children to start dating. Certainly we want our kids to fall in love… someday. Falling in love is one of the greatest adventures in life but it also brings with it a long list of worries. We want to protect our kids from hurt, we worry about who they are dating and whether the relationship is healthy, and of course we worry about the potential for unsafe sex or pregnancy.

Teenage dating and the brain

While we may remember what it felt like to fall in love for the first time, few of us actually know the brain science behind it. Brain structure and chemicals affect the way a teenager first dives in to romance.

Young people first start having romantic feelings before puberty begins. The brain begins releasing a group of hormones called androgens and as the increase, children start experiencing their first crush. This first crush has similar ingredients to full blown attraction, but the main act begins at the onset of puberty when the true intoxicating experience of falling in love usually kicks in.

For most boys, the quick development of the hypothalamus’s INAH-3 prompts sexual thoughts. Combined with testosterone surges, this can make it difficult for young men to think of anything but sex. The hypothalamus also drives changes in hormone levels for girls. Present in all genders, testosterone provides the sex drive in young women. That said, the levels are less intense for girls than boys. This may manifest in some teens being much more interested in the physical aspects of sex while others may be more focused on the relational aspects of sex.

Falling in love

While teens may be thinking a lot about sex, and as parents we worry the most about sex, it is only one part of falling in love. Falling in love is more powerful and all consuming. It involves more of the brain.

Brain scientists at University College in London have conducted brain-based studies on what is happening inside the brain during teenage dating. When shown pictures of their boyfriends or girlfriends, four separate areas of their brain became active – two in the cortex and two deeper within the brain. Importantly, the study found that the prefrontal cortex – the seat of reason- was inactive.

When we fall in love, we aren’t using our rational brain and impulse control. Falling in love is more emotion than thought. This isn’t an unfamiliar brain pattern to scientists. The brain activity of someone in love isn’t that different from someone on cocaine! From the brain’s point of view it is equally as powerful a chemical experience: dopamine (happy), norepinephrine (quick response), and serotonin (mood) are all in play when falling in love. This explains the euphoric, impulsive, emotional roller coaster teenagers are on when they fall in love.

As exhilarating as this is, the brain cannot sustain these emotional and chemical fireworks for long. The average for an adolescent is only three to four months. Getting back to your question Sue, this might well explain why your daughter jumps from relationship to relationship. Teenage dating is often short lived because it can feel boring and less exciting after just a couple of months. When falling in love is a brand new feeling, teens can feel very disappointed when it passes. They can be tempted to look for that same emotional “high” somewhere else.

Standing in love

Compared to falling in love, standing in love is less euphoric but happier and less intense but more enduring and fulfilling. Standing in love is the basis of long term commitments. It is only after the brain cools down from falling in love that the prefrontal cortex starts making judgements again about the viability of a long term relationship. This is when your daughter might be thinking “What did I ever see in that guy?”

Standing in love involves a different set of chemicals as well. For girls, oxytocin takes center stage. Susan Barker of University of Maryland calls oxytocin the “cuddle hormone” as it is associated with forming intimate bonds. For boys, the attachment hormone is vasopressin which increases feelings of protectiveness and attentiveness.

Of course I’ve talked to a lot of parents who are as worried about their teen standing in love too soon as they are about frequent dating. “I don’t want him to get so serious at such a young age. He doesn’t know what his future is going to look like!”

Their concern is understandable. Sometimes teenagers do need to try dating multiple people to get a better understanding of what kind of relationship works for them.

Communication is key

Whether your teenager is falling in love or standing in love or not even thinking yet about teenage dating, it is important that we talk to our teenagers about healthy relationships, sexuality, and communication. Getting beyond THE sex talk, to ongoing communications about sex and relationships will help your teenager navigate the potential pitfalls of dating and help them build the tools they need to someday build a strong, enduring relationship with a partner.

Here are some tips on talking to your teen about dating to get you started.