3 Alarming Takeaways for Parents of Teens in Age Discrepant Relationships

September 22, 2023

Age-discrepant relationships are relationships where partners have a sizeable gap between the ages of those in the relationship. While there is no hard and fast number to define what is considered “sizeable,” when it comes to relationships between teenagers and adults, laws define the age of consent. Mainstream pop stars like Demi Lovato are driving the conversation about the dangers teens face when they are in age-discrepant relationships with adults. If you are a parent of a teen and your child is in a relationship with an adult, you need to be aware of the following 3 alarming takeaways to protect your child. 

This seems like a good moment to remind folks that this blog discusses age differences in romantic relationships. If you are below the age of consent and an adult’s behavior is making you feel uncomfortable, help is available. You can take the following actions:

  • Contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline “at 800-656-4673 for confidential, 24/7 support.”
  • Contact Stop It Now! to “search for the information and guidance you need.”
  • Head to Childhelp “for resources to handle and report abuse or to chat live with someone who can help.”

And even if both partners are above the legal age of consent, the act of consent is still critical. Learn more about consent here

3 takeaways for parents from Demi Lovato’s song “29”

Petal on the vine, too young to drink wine // Just five years a bleeder, student and a teacher // Far from innocent, what the fuck’s consent? // Numbers told you not to, but that didn’t stop you

The adage goes: “Love knows no age.” That’s cute and all, but what I wish it said was, “Love knows no age except if they are under the age of consent, or except if the younger partner’s brain is not fully developed and their partner is considerably more than 10 years older than them, or except when there is coercion, grooming, or there is not fully informed consent.”

That is not as catchy though…I digress.

There are countless love and relationship myths that young folx get through movies, cartoons, advertisements, music, books, and more that I would love to address in future blogs. The issues I’m writing about are power dynamics, consent, and the potential for intimate partner violence in age-discrepant relationships when one partner is a teenager and the other is an adult.

This issue was made even more timely with Demi Lovato’s release of “29” as well as Taylor Swift’s release of “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” last year. As a therapist who has worked in the domestic and sexual violence fields for over a decade, I want to highlight 3 key lessons parents of teens in age-discrepant relationships can learn from Demi Lovato’s song “29.”

1. Teenagers have a different perspective on age-discrepant relationships.

Teens in age-discrepant relationships often experience a nuanced interplay of emotions and challenges.

At a younger age, they may be enamored by the attention and maturity of their older partners, or they may be drawn in by the allure of being desired by an older person. That can feel exciting and liberating, offering an escape from the confines of adolescence.

However, child development research has taught us that adolescent brains are more likely guided by the emotional and reactive parts of the brain rather than the logical part.

2. Power imbalance and manipulation are at the heart of this type of relationship.

One of the key concerns in age-discrepant relationships involving teenagers is the power dynamic between the partners. Adults typically have more life experience, financial stability, and emotional maturity, which can give them an upper hand in decision-making within the relationship. This power imbalance can make it difficult for teenagers to exercise their autonomy and give informed consent fully.

As teenagers grow into adulthood, they may reflect on their past relationships with a different perspective. They might realize that they were not on equal footing with their older partners and may question whether they were truly able to give meaningful consent.

3. Age-discrepant relationships are another form of intimate partner violence.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) can take the form of emotional, verbal, physical, sexual, or financial abuse.

Without the ability to give fully informed consent, adolescents in an age-discrepant relationship with an adult is IPV though teenagers may not recognize it as such. This potentially also makes them more vulnerable to further coercion, control, and abuse by their older partners.

When reflecting on their past relationships as adults, individuals who were once teenagers in age-discrepant relationships may come to understand the abusive dynamics that were present at the time. This realization can be a crucial step towards healing and seeking support if needed.

Had me in your grip, went beautifully with // All my daddy issues and this shit continues // I see you’re quite the collector // Yeah, you’re twelve years her elder // Maybe now it doesn’t matter // But I know, I know better.

The phrase “me too” was first used by Tarana Burke (pictured here) in 2006 to empower women through empathy. In 2017 the #MeToo movement went global, highlighting sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and rape culture.

Looking at age-discrepant relationships through a different lens

As teenagers who have been in age-gap relationships grow into adults, they may view those past relationships through a different lens, recognizing the power dynamics and lack of informed consent that was present. They may also blame themselves for being naïve and trusting someone who they thought was an equal partner. With age comes wisdom, knowledge, perspective, and reflection. I see clients who often use that new wisdom to blame their younger self for not knowing. They could not have known. The adult partner, however, did and does know that they were an unequal partner and that they were to blame for their actions.

Finally, twenty-nine // Seventeen would never cross my mind // Thought it was a teenage dream, a fantasy // But it was yours, it wasn’t mine // Seventeen, twenty-nine.

To learn more about the power dynamics in age-discrepant relationships, register for my upcoming workshop Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve: Reflecting on Age Gap, Power, and IPV in Adolescent Relationships on Wednesday, September 27th, from 9 am to 12 pm. Looking at both Taylor Swift’s and Demi Lovato’s songs with a critical lens, this presentation will also address prevalence, statistics, definitions, dynamics, and clinical skills to support clients. By better understanding these dynamics and impacts, therapists can develop informed and tailored interventions that facilitate healing and growth for survivors of these relationships. Through empathetic and skillful therapeutic practices, therapists play a vital role in supporting folx on their journey toward recovery and empowerment. Please join me.

Kristine Seitz (pictured here) is a CFR Staff Therapist.

About the Author

Kristine Seitz, MEd, MSW, LSW, is a New Jersey Staff Therapist at the Council for Relationships. If you have questions about age-discrepant relationships, her upcoming workshop, or her availability to see new clients, go here.

See our Therapist & Psychiatrist Directory to find a different CFR therapist or psychiatrist near you.

More from CFR

Taylor Swift Songs about Mental Health: The Self-Titled Edition

Senior Staff Therapist Bill Coffey Comments on Demi Lovato’s Tragic Relapse

Yes, Your Teenager Wants to Talk to You About Porn