Neurodiverse teens face challenges in romantic relationships: Here’s how to support them

neurodiverse teens - teen boy kisses girl on cheek
Marta Locklear/Stocksy

Flirting, crushes and dating are normal and healthy parts of development for teens. Learning to navigate romantic relationships is difficult for everyone, but being neurodiverse can add an extra layer of challenge.

During our teen years, we develop and practice many of the social skills that we will use for the rest of our lives. Skills like reading social cues, code-switching and communicating our needs create a base for healthy and meaningful relationships throughout our lives. Some of the things that can be hard for neurodiverse teens in other aspects of life, executive functioning, impulse control, managing big feelings, reading the social cues and dynamics, etc, can also impact them when exploring romantic relationships.

The good news is that we can support neurodiverse teens in developing the social and executive functioning skills that help build healthy relationships! When supporting neurodiverse teens, it is important to understand the additional challenges they may face while exploring romantic relationships.

In my work as a psychologist specializing in supporting neurodiverse kids, teens, and young adults, I have found that these additional challenges often fit into one of three categories.

Challenges neurodiverse teens face in romantic relationships

They had an impulsive or mismatched reaction to something that happened

This happens to everyone on occasion, but some neurodiverse teens have impulsive or mismatched reactions more often. This can lead to dwelling on the moment and fixating on how they will handle similar situations in the future. While well-intentioned, these over-rehearsals can increase anxiety and actually make it more likely that something similar will happen again.

They don’t yet have the skills needed to feel confident in a given situation

For some neurodiverse kids, building skills and reading social cues takes additional time and effort. The skills can be a bit delayed compared to neurotypical kids. Or, sometimes, the skills go “offline” when excited or emotional. In the context of crushes and romantic relationships, this can look like a teen not knowing how to interpret their own feelings, not knowing how to communicate with their crush or not knowing how to read their crush’s body language.

Heightened emotionality and rejection sensitive dysphoria

Some neurodiverse people experience heightened emotionality or rejection sensitive dysphoria. This means that criticism and rejection are felt much more deeply than is typical. These heightened feelings can be overwhelming and hijack the nervous system. It can cause physical symptoms like stomach aches and make concentrating on other things difficult. It is not possible to “just let it go.” when you are having this experience. Heightened emotionality and rejection dysphoria can lead to teens being unwilling to risk rejection and having a very difficult time moving past any rejection they do receive.

Tips to support neurodiverse teens with romantic relationships

Teens have lots of awkward and difficult moments. These moments are part of growing up and not something that we can or even should try to protect our kids from. However, all kids, but particularly neurodiverse kids, benefit from having ongoing conversations about relationships with an adult who can validate their feelings, provide support, and help them build interpersonal skills.

Here are 5 tips that will help you support your neurodiverse teen while they explore romantic relationships.

1: Schedule regular check-ins

Choose one adult (it doesn’t need to be a parent) for the teen to have regular—weekly, biweekly or monthly—check-ins with. These conversations provide a safe space to ask questions and share information. It’s important that kids know they won’t get in trouble for anything said during these conversations. If kids do have a concern or question, it will be much easier for them to bring it up if they are already in the habit of talking about relationships.

If you are struggling to start the conversation, try one of these:

  • Go somewhere or do something together: Being busy or in a different environment can facilitate conversation. Try going for a walk, playing cards, or going to a coffee shop.

  • Explain the purpose of the conversation: “We are going to start having a breakfast date together each month. It’s a time for us to eat and catch up on what’s going on in our lives.”

  • Explain what it is not: “This is a space for you to talk about anything—school, friends, relationships. You won’t get in trouble for anything you say.”

  • Get them talking: Jump in and start the conversation with a simple question: “What’s the most annoying thing that happened this week?”

  • Ask about a friend: Push past one word answers by providing validation then asking an open-ended question.

2: Think about what your teen wants from your conversation

When your teen tells you something that happened or something that is worrying them, it can be easy to jump into “fix it mode.” However, this is usually not what they are looking for and can make having a productive conversation more difficult.

Instead, ask yourself: Does my teen want to vent, problem-solve or reflect?

  • If your teen is venting, they simply want you to hear and validate them.

  • If your teen is problem-solving, they either want to talk through their ideas on how to solve a problem or want your advice on what they could do. First, summarize what you heard them say, then validate their feelings. Finally, ask if they want you to listen to their idea or help them think of an idea.

  • If your teen is reflecting, they want you to listen to them process through something that happened. Validate their experience, then ask if they want to talk about what they will do next.

  • If you are not sure if your teen is venting, problem-solving or reflecting, that’s ok! Just ask them.

3: Remember: the way kids communicate has changed, but the root concerns are generally the same

It’s easy to feel like everything has changed since you were a teen, but it really hasn’t. Kids are communicating in new ways, but the issues themselves are generally the same at their core.

Look past how your kid is communicating and find the real root of their concern. Gossip? Fear of rejection? Struggling to say how they feel? Thinking about a possible romantic interest? These are the same issues we dealt with as teens, even if they looked different then (life before social media).

4: Romantic questions feel huge to kids and that’s OK!

It is normal and developmentally appropriate for kids to take romantic concerns extremely seriously. From an adult perspective, it can be tempting to say, “Don’t worry! That’s not a big deal!” or “I’m sure no one noticed! You’re overreacting.” However, what our kids need is someone to validate their feelings and help them process them. Instead of being dismissive, take your teen’s concerns seriously and ask questions.

  • “That sounds really difficult. I’m sorry that you are dealing with this.”

  • “I see that you’re upset. Do you want to talk about it?”

5: Keep trying

Teens are going through a lot. Our offers for conversation will not always be accepted, and the conversations we do have will not always go well the first time. That’s OK! The goal is to build a safe and open line of communication with our teens so we can be there for them when they need us. It doesn’t mean that every conversion will go well. If you do upset your teen during a conversation, pause, apologize and then ask them what they need.

  • “I see I upset you. I’m sorry. How can I support you right now?”

Supporting a neurodiverse teen who is exploring romantic relationships is hard. However, establishing open and supportive lines of communication will help your teen build the life skills they need to create healthy relationships.