A Parent's Guide to Teen Love
Written for Arizona Parenting.
The answer to understanding all the questions parents have about teenagers in love is simple.
You can’t. No one can.
I mean has anyone even sorted out the precise difference between ‘like’ and ‘LIKE-like’ yet?
To be able to conceptually grasp teenagers in love would require mastering the concept of love for ourselves as adults. OK, I’ll give it a try! Consider this:
I have been in love maybe a dozen times: Russell, Jon, Pete, Richard, Billy!!! Billy!! Billy!, Mike, Michael, Bryan, Chris, Gary, and Stephanie are the ones I remember. I am married now for the second time (Stephanie) and I am deeply in love with her. I have loved her from the second I met her and love her 20 times more every single day, except for last Friday, when I was quite close to hating her guts for an entire 45 minutes.
On the other hand, I have liked, but not yet loved, then LOVE-loved, then just loved again my ex-husband. Sometimes I really don’t even ‘like’ him at all.
Now, look at whatever I just determined love means and multiply it times inexperience and raise it to the power of hormones:
(Whatever LOVE is x inexperience) hormones
Four Subtle Ways to Support Our Teens as They Enter the Whirlwind of Romantic Love
Mind Your Beginner’s Mind
Do not act as if you are the one person on Earth who knows how to navigate the confusing and complicated feelings that accompany falling in and out of love or being in the throes of love. I have five teenagers of my own who I privately interviewed on the topic of love for this article. One after the other, my boys and girls alike, said some version of the following: The idea of love is completely subjective. As in, no other human can tell another human what they are feeling or what to name that feeling. It is not useful when adults over-complicate the idea of love to attempt to convince their kids to avoid it. Just listen. Just be curious. Ask great questions like, “Really? What else?” Let them talk and hear their own words come out of their mouths. Many hard questions can be answered by only providing a humble word and a present mind.
Teach Them To Listen To Their Intuition
The most effective method to ensure that a teenager doesn’t listen to their own instincts and intuition on love is to drown out the whisperings of their subconscious with your own incessant fear-based, past-based droning-on about what you believe love to be. Consider this: Your daughter thinks she is in love, but then she realizes that deep down, she’s really not and is highly likely to let the object of her “love” drift away. Enter you preaching, “You don’t know what love is. You’re just a kid. I was changing your diaper just a few years back, blah blah blah.” Odds are she is now going to have to counter you only to prove that she can handle her business and is in charge of her own emotions and romantic entanglements. They now plan to marry upon graduation and attend the same college in the fall. Back off. Let it play out. Chill. Every time we interject our own knowledge into a kid’s mind without being asked, when they are not interested in hearing our point of view, we are turning the volume down on their own thoughts and replacing the track with our own. We must resist that urge and let them find their own way.
There’s No Such Thing As A Heart Helmet
Having our hearts broken, shattered even, is unavoidable. There is no way to protect our kids’ hearts from pain. Part of life is the pain. Part of our development as humans is to heal from pain and to learn how to become stronger, wiser, and more discerning. We want our kids to be resilient, don’t we? Then we must let them make mistakes, fail, suffer, and find their way. We can be a witness to that if they trust us to come alongside them as they nurse their wounds. We cannot intervene in ways that rob our kids of the opportunity to prevail, to build confidence in their inherent ability to bounce back. Imagine this scene: an ex-girlfriend’s mother attempts to get involved in a young man’s decision to break up with the young woman, berating him for his choice to remove their prom pictures from his social media feed and exercise his preference to maintain boundaries. She is desperate to protect her daughter’s feelings, but inadvertently is sending her the message that she could not possibly be ok with being rejected. She implies that her daughter cannot cope, modelling that aggression and control are the way. Remember, the momma/papa bear schtick is not a free pass to interfere in our kids’ love lives.
Do You Ever Feel Like Someone Is Watching You?
That’s because they are. Your kids have been since they were tiny people. They are learning about life and love through what they see and feel at home. We all learn much less from what we are told compared to what we observe. I remember thinking my parents’ marriage was happy, even perfect. They were not getting a divorce like the neighbors or my lab partner’s parents were. They never fought. Fast forward to them breaking up when I was 18. Ooooh!! They didn’t fight because they didn’t talk. Their marriage was dead for years and years, but as a kid, I just did not know anything else. Normal is what you know, relative to nothing. It has taken years of living and hours of therapy for me to be able to learn and trust how wonderful a partnership really can be. I know my kids are seeing it too, as my wife and I work through disagreements and stressful times in our lives together, not apart. We are providing a stable, unconditional-loving model of what their current and future relationships can be like. They know what feels good to them and it is their home life, their moms’ true love, and the example of teamwork. We apologize quickly and often to each other and to them. It is all a setup though. They will actually think it is normal to let go of grudges, to resist the temptation to sweep resentments and hurts under the rug of bitterness and unforgiveness.
What If Who They Love Makes You Feel Weird?
What if who your kids love does not match the completely arbitrary, presumptuous version of who you dreamed up for them in your head? What would it be like if you did not have a preconceived notion of who is best for your kids to love? What if you are surprised that they love someone who is not who you have had in mind, for whatever reason: family status, ethnicity, gender, style, goal-orientation, etc. How will you respond? What will you say? What if you don’t make it about you when they start to practice being a partner with someone who is most likely not who they will end up with in the future forever and ever? What if you don’t let fear and inherited rules about who is acceptable for your teenager to love take charge of your parent/child relationship? Can you keep your mind open like a parachute, so you do not crash land when you realize that it is not your choice or your right to say who your child can love — as much as it is not your parents’ right to impose their expectations upon you? What if you just believe that what really matters is that their love is pure and good, and that it can look so many different, beautiful ways? What if you let yourself be free to love the things and people who your heart said were right for you, too? Wouldn’t that be great? It’s your call!
In my practice, I coach parents to become the first people their teenagers want to talk to and listen to, not the last. The absolute number one missing component in disconnected families is having a safe environment for your teenager to think, feel, talk and be who they are, as they explore and adjust to the realities of life. They are literally getting to know themselves, who THEY really are, not who you think they are. We must consistently create, nurture, and tend to that experience of a safe space for them; so that they will know with certainty that we are here to listen, not prod; guide, not control; coach, not dictate.
Do you ever think about how in the long run, you could be wrinkled-up elderly folks, rocking in chairs, side-by-side, sipping iced tea on the porch, having been best friends for all these years…every now and then laughing with delight as you recall that you were their parent, way back in the day? A human who got the privilege of seeing another human through the start of their one precious life.
Now that’s true love.