Teenage love: what should a parent do

A psychologist tells you how you ought to deal with your teenager's love, which might be a just passing infatuation but could also culminate into a more serious long-term courtship

Student teenage girl in love studying at home daydreaming

“There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Watching our children begin their incipient pursuit of love could be a source of tremendous delight, and stir pleasant memories of our own first, fumbling but exhilarating steps in the direction of the courtship that may have ultimately led to our children’s existence. Necessary as it is for teenagers to forge an enduring relationship with a loved one, the process of discovering healthy intimacy is generally a long, and sometimes harrowing, one, often comprised of one or more relationships that do not appear to be quite as healthy as caring parents would like them to be. With this in mind, it is helpful for parents to have a blueprint on hand regarding how to make sense of, and intelligently discuss, their teenagers’ relational matters, particularly if warning signs begin to reveal themselves.

Is the relationship a constructive one?

One place to start is by constructing a working definition of what characterises a loving relationship. As we all know [and may very well remember!], most teenagers who are in a romantic relationship, even one that appears to be nothing more than a superficial infatuation, will steadfastly insist that they are “really in love”. And it is invariably impossible to argue with a young adult out of this position—nor is it generally necessary to do so. Unless, of course, the relationship is a troubled one and seems to be creating more problems than it is solving for one or both of its constituents.

With this in mind, I often advise parents to explain to young lovebirds that a truly mature relationship is one in which both partners value each other, and are showing evidence of thriving as a result of valuing each other. For example, if two young romantic partners are not only treating each other well, but also their friends and family members, that is an indication that their bond is indeed a meaningful one. If they display enthusiasm for important endeavours such as academics and hobbies, and a good-natured, generous spirit when it comes to completing their responsibilities, that too, should be an indication of a constructive partnership. If, on the other hand, one or both partners seem more irritable than engaged, more contentious than cooperative, more distracted than focussed, then we, as parents, have the legitimacy to dispute their insistence that they are “in love” and encourage them to question their affection for each other.

We all yearn to be part of our children’s lives, but that yearning becomes increasingly unrequited and unanswered as they grow into adolescence

Missing the adulation that was once ours

Teenagers’ romantic unfolding is often a challenge for parents not only because we worry about the direction their relationship is moving in and the impact that it will have on their future, but also because it is a reminder of our own mortality. Nothing nudges us more forcefully into the twilight of insignificance than seeing the adulation that used to be directed our way now being directed towards someone else. We all yearn to be part of our children’s lives, but that yearning becomes increasingly unrequited and unanswered as they grow into adolescence.

Similarly, I have seen many parents take an inappropriately harsh stand against their child’s nascent romance because it reminds them of the romance that they no longer feel, either because they are alone [single, separated, divorced or widowed], or because their relationship has been sapped of vigour. The envy that we [sometimes ashamedly] encounter when we watch our children blossom into the springtime of their lives can be painful and if we do not understand the basis for that envy, it can sometimes get the best of us, prompting us to want to squelch a teen relationship that is either likely to be short-lived anyway, or potentially long-standing.

On the other hand, I have witnessed many parents attempt to re-experience the love that they are missing in their own lives through vicariously tapping into their teen’s love relationship. They may inappropriately support a connection that is imbalanced, and neglect to set the limits that prevent teens from “getting in too deep”.

Of course, it is also not uncommon for parents to be concerned for reasons that may in fact be legitimate, and, at these times, it is important to proceed thoughtfully. As noted above, adopting an overly critical viewpoint often artificially solidifies a puerile relationship, creating a “Romeo and Juliet” situation in which the lovers actually savour their parents’ antipathy to fuel their relational growth, despite how dysfunctional the relationship has become. On the other hand, simply backing off and adopting too much of a laissez-faire attitude can yield problematic outcomes as well, such as an unplanned pregnancy, STDs, and infliction of emotional or physical abuse.

It is normal for adolescents to idealise cherished adults, and for that idealisation to at times radiate a romantic glow

Dealing with their self-esteem issues

One challenge in these situations is that the individuals whom an adolescent surrounds him- or herself with are generally an accurate barometer of his or her self-regard, especially when it comes to a romantic relationship. In other words, the higher a child’s self-esteem, the higher will be the quality of the romantic partner and the more appropriate the relationship between them. So when an adolescent has become entangled in a relationship with someone whom we do not approve of or who is, in one way or another, “bad” for him/her, it is unwise to simply besiege him or her with acid commentaries and scornful criticism, since these will only further corrode his or her self-esteem, which may in turn further solidify the maladaptive bond.

With this in mind, rather than just taking a stand against the relationship, a better tactic is to ask questions that attract the teens’ curiosity regarding why s/he is engaged in this relationship, and what the potential pitfalls of continuing it, or concluding it, might be.

Here are some examples:

  • I know that you have said that you are in love with your girlfriend, yet I have to say that the two of you don’t seem very happy when you are together—do you have any sense of why this is?
  • Sometimes I wonder if you have outgrown your relationship with your boyfriend, yet you seem hesitant to put it to rest—what are you concerned would happen if you broke up with him? Are you more worried about how he would handle it or how you would handle it?
  • Have you ever thought about the difference between someone “loving you” and someone “using you”? What do you think the difference is? When you think about your relationship, do you think it’s like being used or more like being loved?

The reality is that human beings are, in essence, creatures of love

Temporary idolisation or infatuation

Parents ought to honour and respect their adolescents’ efforts to seek out adult love
Parents ought to honour and respect their adolescents’ efforts to seek out adult love

Another common tendency on the part of parents is to make the mistake of overreacting to a juvenile crush that is unlikely to endure. In fact, parents who become preoccupied with a temporary relationship will often see this preoccupation backfire, as their adolescent may take great delight in having captured their parents’ attention and unnerved them so thoroughly. Sometimes the crush will be directed towards someone much older—an admired teacher, coach or mentor. Assuming that the beneficiary of the teen’s fawning worship doesn’t exploit this relationship to his/her advantage, such heated veneration does not have to become problematic. It is normal for adolescents to idealise cherished adults, and for that idealisation to at times radiate a romantic glow. In essence, falling in love with a glorified adult is a way for the adolescent to fall more deeply in love with his or her embryonic adult self, a process that in turn generally translates into a more appropriate loving relationship with a peer over time. Subsequently, unless there is evidence that a boundary is being crossed by the adult, I don’t believe it’s either required, or wise, to intervene, as these kinds of passionate obsessions usually fade out over time when left to follow their own, usually limited, course.

Your love life as an example for your child

An often neglected component of helping our adolescent children establish a solid foundation for meaningful love is to provide them with a model in our own lives, so that they enter the province of relatedness with a useful template to build from. It is obviously easier to provide this template if we are engaged in that kind of intimacy ourselves, such as a respectful and enduring marriage. But even if we are separated or divorced or perhaps never found ourselves in a flourishing relationship—we can still provide our children with an understanding of what may have gone wrong.

“Your father has many strengths, but looking back, I can see that I married him because I was lonely, and scared of staying alone, rather than because I really loved him.”

“I did care about your mom, and there were many interests that we had in common, but I did not see her as a life partner. However, I felt too guilty about ending the relationship so I just kind of went along with it, year after year, until I realised that we were never going to be happy together.”

Why adolescence romance is normal

The reality is that human beings are, in essence, creatures of love. From my perspective as a family psychologist who treats individuals from very small children to very old adults, I have come to the conclusion that healthy development ultimately depends on the capacity to pursue and find adult love, and to gradually allow that love to soften and heal the unavoidable pain that remains from our childhood.

Our adolescents’ pioneering efforts to seek out this sustaining and sustainable adult love, clumsy and consuming as these efforts may sometimes be, still deserve to be honoured and respected by their parents. In so many ways, the more we honour and respect these efforts, the more likely that the attachment that they ultimately choreograph and co-create with their eventual partner of choice will carry both of them forward towards lives of significance, depth, wholeness and dignity, lives that are guided and enriched by the infinite possibilities of love.

A version of this article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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