“How come that (my) teenager doesn’t just grow up!? Hurry up, already!” Watch out what you ask for. They may just “grow up” in ways you don’t want. First, the answer to why they don’t grow up faster is pretty much related to why babies have infancy, why crawling comes before walking, why learning the alphabet and letter sounds precedes reading, why maturity predicts healthy intimacy, and a litany of orderly progressions in development. There is an order to development… first, second, third, etc. Ignoring the sequence by skipping or rushing developmental needs or developmental energy causes problems in development at all ages including adolescence. Babies need to wave arms and legs before sitting up, then crawling, walking, and running. In particular with individuals, couples, and families, unsuccessful first attachment to intimate figures- parents needs to precede subsequent attachment to secondary intimate figures such as grandparents, babysitters, teachers, siblings and friends. All earlier attachment experience in turn need precede the next intimate figures of romantic relationships. That can be a major reason adolescent romances can be so volatile and full of drama. “I love you forever!” “I hate you forever!” “I can’t live without you.” “I wish you would just die!” And within all that drama will be love love love… and perhaps, sex! Whoa… wait a minute, ya mean ya want them to grow up faster, but not THAT way!?
Sequence and Progression in Development
Sequential development is highly connected to progressive development. The development in the earlier stages set up the individual for his or her development in later stages. That might be most obvious… or sensational in adolescence. Early stages of attachment, of problem-solving such as cognitive development, emotional intelligence development, communication skills, inter-personal skills including playfulness, and so forth are critical for later success or problems. Whenever foundational processes are weak or unfinished, a teenager especially in relationships continually have to manage current needs, while simultaneously trying to compensate for weaknesses in earlier psychic construction. Taken together, sequence and progression problems in attachment leave some teenagers without the secure attachment that predicts healthy intimate relationships.
The romantic intimate relationship itself has an implicit sequence and progression, despite some teenagers who think it erupts into full intensity immediately upon meeting the love of one’s life. Or, some parents or adults who suddenly realize their little boy or girl has reached puberty AND become a sex maniac overnight! This sequence and progression can be hypothetically considered a natural process and/or be significantly influenced or challenged by cultural considerations. The modern American romantic perception of the sequence and progression may or may not be anthropologically or ecologically naturalistic. It can be argued that classic Romeo and Juliet star-crossed lover stories in many cultures and societies assert a naturalistic sequence and progression that is interrupted or corrupted by cultural models. The tentative or love-struck teenager may be examined for the sequence and progression of the relationship from some such varied models for discrepancies and expectations.
A Common Romantic Model
A common romantic model that many Americans aspire to may be
- Initial attraction occurs and is reciprocated as the two individuals find attraction is mutual.
- Tentative exploration for continued and consistent mutual attraction, interest, and compatibility during a beginning period of dating lasting from a few weeks to several months. Exploration and experimentation may include sexual intimacy depending on personal, social, religious, and cultural values and expectations.
- Positive experiences from initial exploration and experimentation lead to a commitment to monogamous relationship or exclusivity (professed or actual) after the extended initial period of dating. This period can last for weeks, months, or years as affected by development (physical, intellectual, sexual, spiritual, economic, etc.) and/or be defined by chronological development (too young to co-habituate or marry, biological clock to have children, old enough to co-habituate or marry, etc.). This monogamous or exclusive relationship may not be normative for some groups or individuals. Such individuals or groups may or may not proceed to subsequent stages.
- Positive experiences from the monogamous relationship take committed partners beyond immediate compatibility issues to a next stage that explores for long-term compatibility (life goals, children, career, etc.). This can continue for months to years. Sufficient positive experience may be gained to have confidence to move a next stage of co-habitation without legal commitment; and co-mingling of financial, social, and other affairs. This may occur despite minor to major expectations from social, religious, and cultural models. More traditional models do not allow for this stage. This can continue for months to years.
- Positive experiences from exploring long-term compatibility issues and co-habitation (if applicable) lead to commitment as life partners in marriage, as domestic partners, or as is otherwise conceptualized. Once this stage is institutionalized, legitimatized, or personally validated, the couple proceeds to activate their agreed long-term goals and commitments with each other (including possibly having children).
Mismatched in L-O-V-E
When examining a teenager or especially a couple of teenagers in L-O-V-E in light of traditional and current expectations with this sequential and progressive model, inconsistencies and mismatches may readily become apparent. For example, in arranged marriages from more traditional non-modern American cultures, the first stage of initial attraction may be irrelevant, as may be developmental considerations at every other stage. The individual partners or marries because of family, economic, and/or political reasons, or in the case of some faiths because the head of the religion pairs them off. An entirely different couple’s developmental stage model may need to be considered. A somewhat comparable alternative model may not be based on romantic attraction. They may include those from not only non-American cultures, but also Americans who choose partners or marry for status, to get away from the family-of-origin, to run from abuse, for financial security, or various emotional or psychological issues confused with love. Subsequent stages of exploration and experimentation may still be relevant but without the foundational emotions of love.
The assumption of a romantic foundation may not match the actual experience of the teenager or teenagers. A potential issue, is a cross-cultural discrepancy between a professed relationship based on love versus an actual relationship based on some other contractual foundation. In adolescence as in other ages, the relationship could be, among other reasons for the status conveyed dating the popular kid, fitting in, or from a desperate fear of being along such that almost anyone will suffice as a partner. As such, the teenager may have emotional problems may be from an unacknowledged loss from the lack of a romantic foundation for one or both partners. Or, the problems arise from the desire of one or both of the teenage partners to perceive romantic intimacy where there had been none. One might hear a teenager complaining bitterly about his or her partner’s lack of comparable commitment to the relationship. Where is the love? The questions becomes if, how, and when it was lost versus whether it ever was a part of the relationship contract.
Romance Without Building Blocks
In the five-stage sequence and progression of the relationship presented, the teen partners moves into each subsequent stage based on positive experiences as they engage in exploration and experimentation with each other. This is also known as dating initially, going together, co-habituating (if old enough and with enough finances), and so on. Using this simple model with teenagers to examine their relationship history, one may find that one or both teenagers had moved from one stage to the next without an accumulation of positive experiences (insufficient quantitative change or not having progression to base movement on). For some individuals, that the couple functions partly or entirely (or sub-consciously) from a non-romantic model, the lack of initial attraction or the lack of reciprocated mutual attraction is not supposedly relevant. This however would not tend to be as relevant for teenagers as they are often outrageously romantic. However, for teenagers who profess a romantic model, progressing into a more advanced committed stage despite the lack of positive experiences, do so or did so without the building blocks of the relationship. Dealing with this would involve addressing the teenager or couple’s lack of sequence and progression.
It may be beneficial to explore and challenge why a teenager or couple together ignored, denied, or minimized the lack of foundational experiences and moved forward to advanced stages anyway. What was it about one or another or both that they needed to or felt compelled to commit beyond what experiences merited? For a teenager who justifies the progression by saying, “I was in love!” one may be tempted to respond, “But were you also in stupid!?” Adults and parents should hold firm to the assertion that progressing under such conditions/experiences does not make sense. That is, does not make sense unless there is something more compelling than love that made it make sense. In other words, what is the emotional, psychological, social, familial, economic, cultural, political, or some combination of compulsions that made it make sense at the time? Some of it is developmental- the inherent romantic attitudes of teenagers and their excitement to explore new worlds, including intimacy and sex. Adults and parents should support teenagers to explore attachment insecurity, depression, anxiety and fear, trauma, or other emotional/psychological issue that would have compelled teenagers to ignore the reality of being out of sequence and insufficient progression.
Skipping or Rushing Development Causes Problems
Being out of sequence and insufficient progression occurs when anyone including teenagers skips or rushes developmental tasks. Skipping or rushing development can mean that there are insufficient quantitative experiences or changes to merit the critical mass that leads to qualitative change. A teenager for example is somehow expected to process and function from a qualitatively unsophisticated position that is inherently uncomfortable. That could be little or insufficient opportunities to make trial and error mistakes, leading to immature and insecure risk-taking skills. Whether to drink or not drink, or to seek admission to a prestigious college, or to let another teenager know of his or her romantic interest become confusing challenges. The teenager ends up functioning with pervasive anxiety about what to do. Using tools the teenager does not know quite how to handle, to gain a result he or she does not quite know for a reason that is slightly to significantly outside his or her horizons! All this occurs while being judged by others and/or his or her internalized critic. It takes the teenager outside his or her locus of control into harmful stress. Skipping or rushing development betrays the essential sequence and progression needs within healthy developmental processes. This rule or principle of developmental theories as applied to the teenager in an intimate relationship examines if he or she has been skipped or rushed through individual development, especially, attachment needs with dysfunctional emotional, psychological, and relational consequences. The lack of positive progressive foundational experiences folds back upon the teenager with additional dysfunctional development in the intimate relationship. As such, entering into an intimate relationship is in of itself a further harmful skipping and rushing of development. And how often to do teenagers get into romantic relationships with due thought and consideration? Yeah, right!
The Right Thing Becomes the Wrong Thing
Jessica and Chester met at a party on Saturday night about 9pm. By 9:30pm, they were both drunk. By 9:45pm, they were making out on the couch. By 10pm, they were having sex in a back bedroom. At 3am, they went to Jessica’s place; her parents are out of town. They spent the rest of the morning there. Monday morning, Chester left to sneak back into his parents’ house. Since they are teenagers still living with their respective parents, everyone is fortunate that by Monday afternoon, Chester hadn’t moved in! Nevertheless, within three months, Jessica was pregnant. Completely freaked out, they do the “right thing” and get married despite their parents’ misgivings. Eight years later, with three kids, Jessica and Chester were still trying to catch up on all the developmental tasks and needs they had skipped or rushed through. It had become clear over the years the other partner did things and believed in things that the first partner did not like. Many of these things would have been deal-breakers for a life partnership if they had not already made babies and moved in together. These were things that they would have discovered over months and years as and if they had had the time to progress slowly and naturally as a couple experiencing and discovering each other. The relationship was out of sequence, lacked healthy progression, as they had skipped or rushed healthy developmental experiences. Although they said they loved each other, they acted as if they did not like each other. Jessica and Chester were both in their mid-twenties but seemed more like immature teenagers. Trying to be and needing to be parents, partners, and a family, neither one of them had really grown up. Not surprisingly, they were having issues with their children as well. The older one was acting out at home and constantly in trouble in school. Jessica and Chester had a laundry list of dysfunctional compensations to deal with their stress and unhappiness. Who were the children in this family? Who were the immature ones?
Over time, important additional developmental principles continually manifest for individuals and therefore, for a couple or family, plus other relationships. Developmental demands that are skipped or rushed in childhood and adolescence will pull people back for resolution until they are completed. A person can frequently get stuck or regress to such stages until they are resolved. In relationships, especially the romantic relationship, insistence on “stop being so immature” or “don’t be such a baby” can skip or rush the individual through the developmental tasks or needs once again. Chester tried his best to step and be the man of the house, the good dad, or the good husband. However at seventeen and for several years, he had not finished growing up when he and Jessica hooked up. He became a sports fanatic: professional football, college football, fantasy football, and so forth, with the requisite betting, beer, and partying. His acting out or problematic behavior was actually developmental needs seeking address in the current relationship or situation. Jessica ate compulsively and became bulimic. She hated herself for being “fat.” She was not sexually receptive to Chester anymore and found him and sexly repulsive. She was desperately lonely in the family of five people. She had not been able to get Chester to attend to and care for her… as she had not been able to get her emotionally barren father to attend to or care for her. She pouted when her father ignored her and she pouted when Chester shut her down. Clearly, in retrospect staying together was the wrong thing to do.
The developmental stuckness or regression when an individual displays attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors that are confounding from an adult could be age-appropriate for a young child in distress. Other adults or Jessica or Chester’s parents’ counter-transference caused them to become impatient with Jessica and Chester’s child-like “immaturity,” “adolescent entitlement,” “egotistic selfishness,” or “infantile tantrums.” Chester and Jessica tweaked their parents and other invested adults, frustrating supportive directives and interventions with childish impulsivity and defiance. Not only Jessica and Chester, but other adults felt like frustrated angry ineffective parents to their dysfunctional behavior. These instinctive reactions by others give cues to understanding how the chain of poor decisions developed. The next blog looks at a couple more basic rules of development and through answering the question, “Why do you pick up a baby who’s crying?” This will help one understand the drama of pre-teen and adolescent romances AND their vulnerability to becoming truly dysfunctional.