Teaching Teens about Love: A Parent’s Guide

Teaching Teens about Love: A Parent’s Guide

There’s no love like first love. That’s why there are so many films, books, television shows and other forms of mass media centered around the dramatic, intense and all-consuming experience that is teenage love. Given that even the most emotionally stable adults are constantly challenged by the ups and downs of relationships, it’s not surprising that even the most level-headed parents get panicky when they see their teenager caught up in “young love.”

The good news is, there are ways you can help your teen survive the ups and downs of being on the relationship roller coaster. The bad news is, effectively supporting your teen with love is a tricky art to master. To avoid alienating them and evoking the classic eye-roll “Ohhh moooom!” response, it’s important to be strategic about when and how you discuss relationships with them. Teaching teens about love is a little bit like being in a very dramatic play: timing and delivery are everything. Here are a few essential dos and don’ts to increase your ability to successfully support your teenager through the trials and tribulations of young love.

Do use reflective listening. Asking them questions like “What’s wrong?” will usually get you a “Nothing” response followed by mopey silence. Instead, try something a little more subtle: reflecting back what you see or hear. For example, if they’re curled up on the couch and look like they’re fighting back tears, saying something like “It looks like you’re feeling really sad right now” might help you crack open the door to discussion. Reflective listening can also help keep you away from the common parent pitfall of giving unsolicited advice, which most teenagers hate. Reflective listening, on the other hand, is a great way to help them to recognize their own thoughts and feelings and subtly guide them to make their own decisions. This not only makes them feel more supported by you, but allows them to feel more empowered by the choices they make.

Don’t invalidate them. It’s easy to want to roll your eyes at your teenager’s seemingly dramatic relationship woes or to shake some sense into them when they make what to you are obviously bad relationship choices. However, if you really want to help them learn to have a healthy relationship, it’s important to bite your tongue and focus first and foremost on validating how they feel. A common misconception is that validation equals acceptance. Sadly, this causes many parents to refrain from using this powerful skill to their advantage. In reality, validation goes a long way and in no way means you agree with what they are saying or doing. Rather, it simply means you are hearing them out and acknowledging their feelings. A good rule of thumb is to always validate them before offering any kind of advice. Once your teenager feels validated, they are far more likely to actually listen to what you have to say and acknowledge any concerns you might have.

 Do ask permission. This may seem simple, but it’s an often overlooked tip that goes a long way. Asking your teenager if it’s okay for you to give them advice makes them feel respected and increases the likelihood they will truly listen to what you have to say. It also helps you to gauge whether or not this is a good opportunity to talk to them. It can save you both a lot of time and energy. While a lot of parents are afraid their kid will never give them permission to offer advice, you’d be surprised at how often they actually say yes, especially after you’ve taken the time to validate how they feel first.

Don’t teach when you are emotional. If you try to teach them when you angry or tired, chances are it won’t go over well. While an angry lecture might seem like a good idea to “knock some sense into them,” they are actually less likely to take in what you say than when you look for a good window of opportunity to have a casual chat with them. Remind yourself that the long-term benefits are worth the wait.

 Do use media as a teaching tool. Watching ridiculous reality shows, [attempting] to play the hottest new video game or catching the latest teen romcom are all great ways to segue into various relationship discussions. Since you are discussing fictional characters, your teen is less likely to be defensive than if you were talking about their life. If you time it right, you can not only bond with your kid, you can teach them valuable lessons without them knowing. Media-based conversations also often leave room for using humor, which can be a great way to engage an often sarcastic teenager.

Don’t go overboard. It’s not uncommon for parents to get excited about having the opportunity to offer their teen valuable lessons about love and accidentally overdo it. Keeping things short and avoiding long-winded lectures are essential. Pay close attention to your teen when you are talking to them: if they start to get that “checked out” look on their face, it’s a cue you’ve gone overboard. Try matching or “mirroring” your interactions with theirs so that there is almost a fluidity to your interaction. This means being comfortable leaving room for silence when they are quiet or using a lighter, more humorous tone than you’d like to when they are being sarcastic.

 Do consider embracing their relationships. This may seem counter-intuitive, especially if you are concerned about how healthy a relationship your teen is in. However, generally the harder you try to put out the flames of first love, the stronger it burns. Alternatively, when you curb your concerns and open your door to your teenagers Romeo or Juliet, not only can you keep a close eye on the relationship, your teen is more likely to come to you in difficult moments for support instead of trying to solve potential dangerous situations on their own. Not only that, they are also much more likely to hear you out about your concerns in the future if they feel you have given the person a chance. Has anyone ever given you the advice “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer?” Here’s your chance to apply it.

Don’t expect immediate change. One of the hardest things for most parents is accepting the fact that their teenager didn’t immediately take to heart their brilliant advice and apply to it their life to save themselves many potential relationship woes. In fact, many incidents of parent-teen conflict stem from the expectation for change, as parents become frustrated and worried and try to force change to happen by yelling and screaming. As hard as it may be, it’s important to trust that they do hear what you say and to accept that their learnings in love will likely take much longer than you’d like to sink in.

Do let them come to you. Your teen reaching out to you for support can be the most powerful and productive moments you get to teach them about love. Most teenagers don’t like to admit they want help from their parents, so watch for subtle cues of connection. It could be asking a question they often wouldn’t or giving you a hug when they normally would breeze by you. These moments often provide much-needed glimmers of hope that reassure parents that their teens are actually starting to learn something from them about love.

Anna Coutts, MEd, CCC

About Anna

Coutts Anna Feb 2015

Anna is a youth and family therapist based out of Toronto, Ontario. She splits her time working at an accredited children’s mental health agency and running her online private practice, Coutts Online Counselling.


December 19, 2016