Early Adolescent Romantic Experiences: Early Childhood Predictors and Concurrent Associations with Psychopathology

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Research has demonstrated that early adolescent romantic relationships are prevalent, and initiation of romantic relationships at younger ages bears important implications for youths’ future development. Although earlier dating involvement may increase risk for negative outcomes, the majority of research on teen relationships focuses on older adolescents; a paucity of research explores the phenomenology of preteen romantic relationships. Further, a striking gap exists in the study of how early childhood factors may affect early adolescent romantic relationships.

In order to address these gaps, the current study aimed to elucidate the phenomenology and concurrent psychosocial correlates of preteen (age 12) romantic relationships and to delineate early childhood variables that predict involvement in and quality of preteen romantic relationships. In a longitudinal sample of 440 youth, we examined concurrent associations between multiple dimensions of age 12 romantic relationships (dating experiences, risky dating, relationship discord, relationship closeness, sexual experience) and friendship competence, and age 12 psychopathology (anxiety, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], disruptive behavior disorder [DBD] symptoms) and psychosocial functioning. Given prior research indicating that pubertal status and child sex may also play a role in romantic relationship involvement, we examined these two variables as moderators in concurrent analyses. In addition, we examined how two salient dimensions of early childhood (temperament and parenting, assessed at age 3) predicted romantic relationship outcomes at age 12.

Results indicated that more frequent romantic experiences at age 12 were associated with increased psychosocial distress and poorer functioning; however, youth with higher quality romantic relationships evidenced lower levels of psychiatric symptoms and better psychosocial functioning. In addition, the associations between early adolescent romantic relationships and adjustment were complex and were moderated by child sex and pubertal status. Further, dimensions of age 3 childhood temperament and parenting differentially predicted dimensions of early adolescent romantic relationships and friendship competence. Importantly, our findings contribute to a growing body of literature on preteen romantic relationships, and are among the first data to examine early childhood predictors of age 12 romantic relationship outcomes. These findings hold important clinical implications for future early adolescent prevention and intervention programs.