It was a hard question to answer: “How does love between adolescents change over the growing-up years, and what lessons might a young person learn from each kind of experience?” What follows are a few thoughts in response.
I think for most adolescents, to experience love is to give your heartfelt caring to someone you ultimately value and by whom you dearly want to be so valued in return.
The foundational love experience for most young people is usually with parents and the constancy of their love. For the child this is sufficient love, but as the adolescent grows older there is the desire to socialize significant caring outside of family. Now progressive stages of possible love can begin to unfold.
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I say “possible” because some adolescents experience none of the four kinds of love to be discussed, more experience one or two, and a very few experience them all. Observations about these four kinds adolescent love relationships follow, suggesting formative lessons that each relationship might have to teach.
Best Friendship Love, BFF (“Best Friends Forever”), can feel like a merged relationship because similarity rules. “We are totally alike. We know each other’s emotions without being told.” This creates an immature intimacy of great power. The intimacy is immature because it is based on shared commonality, with not much room for individual differences and variation. So there can be little attention paid to, and room created for diversity. What usually ends these relationships is when one party feels the need for more adolescent differentiation, and now this need starts growing them apart. “I need more freedom to be myself and to make other friends”
Plan not-so-random acts of kindness. Kids need to know that helping others is an everyday practice, not a visit-a-soup-kitchen-at-the-holidays grand gesture. Challenge yours to complete small tasks every week, like throwing away another kid's trash at lunch or raking a neighbor's lawn. Training your children to focus on others helps curb entitlement. "Gratitude becomes woven into who they are," says Jeffrey J. Froh, a coauthor of Making Grateful Kids.
Love lessons learned from a BFF relationship can be intimacy based on shared similarity, compatibility, emotional sensitivity to another, and loyalty to a primary social relationship.
Crush Love , can feel very emotionally compelling because the projection of personal ideals on a peer creates the desire to be like the person so admired. “She’s everything I want to be, and I want to be with her all the time!” One person attributes their ideals to another and then is enamored with what they have imagined. Now there is some risk of having one’s smitten feelings exploited, following another’s example or giving in despite the cost. Crushes don’t last long because they are more about the lover than the loved. This is a brief intimacy since it is based more on fantasy than attachment, and as ideals change or as reality proves the worshipped other less than one imagined, the crush wears off. “He’s not as great as I wanted to believe.” “She’s not the perfect person I thought she was!’
Love lessons learned from a crush relationship can be admiration of a loved one, valuing in another person what one wants for oneself, learning from another person a different way to be.
In-Love is the awakening of a romantic attraction which can be exciting, idealized, euphoric, obsessive, and urgent, very emotionally intense on all counts. “Being together is all I can think of!” The desire for physical intimacy to affirm the attachment becomes more compelling. And now the desire for a perfectly happy union can make separations, misunderstandings, disagreements, and jealousies hard to bear. “I hate it when we don’t get along!” The wearing off of infatuation is what brings most of these relationships to a close.
Love lessons learned from an in-love relationship can be experiencing romantic attraction, daring to risk more emotional vulnerability, being willing to do more intimate sharing, and facing how the person one loves the most can often hurt one the worst.
"Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them." - Oscar Wilde
True Love is the commitment to grow a loving intimacy into the for-seeable future. Beyond loving each other is their liking of each other, valuing that company better than with anyone else. Exclusively, they enjoy being a social couple. “We belong together!” Now lastingness of the relationship depends on willingness to work at keeping the sense of commitment made. Although a few young people marry their high school sweethearts, most do not because life changes of one kind or another (like going different direction after graduation) tend to grow the couple apart. “We still care for each other but just decided to go our separate ways.”
Love lessons learned from a true love relationship can be managing a mature intimacy that encompasses and values both human similarities and differences, learning how to create a mutuality in which each treats the other well, and coming to weather normal ups and downs in their relationship without impulsively seeking to end it.
Important for parents to remember is that just because most of these love relationships don’t last doesn’t mean they are not of lasting value. They are.
- Best friendship can teach the power of compatibility
- Crush relationships can teach the power of admiration
- In-love can teach the power of romantic attraction
- True love can teach the power of mutuality
These lessons are educational and can be formative. Classroom education can only teach so much about life. When it comes to learning about love, relationships are the best instructors. One aspect of these transitory relationships is the reality of loss that commonly occurs. I believe parents must keep a caring watch when:
- Best friendship ends
- A crush wears off
- In-love breaks up
- True love is let go
Parents need to provide empathy and support to help the bereft adolescent appreciate the value of what was given, mourn the loss of what has been taken away, and assess important lessons about love that can be beneficially carried forward.
And of course, if their adolescent is in the rejected role, parents must attend particularly closely to see that hurt feelings do not lead to unhappy outcomes – acting depressively and becoming despondent, acting aggressively and deciding to retaliate, or acting depressively/aggressively and harming them self.
It’s important that parents not to dismiss this unhappiness as only a loss of youthful or “puppy” love. Take it seriously. At whatever age, love is love.
Next week’s entry: Parenting an Adolescent in this Electronic Age