Call it puppy love. Infatuation. A first crush. Whatever you call it, when it comes to teens and their first loves, parents often feel just as awkward as their children. What should they say? What should they do? How much should they be involved in their child's first romances?
"First love is a powerful factor in a child's development. It means a lot to them and it usually happens when they are undergoing a great deal of physiological and emotional change," said Laura Rocker, MD, a pediatric psychiatrist at Akron Children's Hospital.
For most children, a first love is a crush on someone unobtainable, such as a celebrity or an attractive adult acquaintance.
"A crush is a healthy first step," said Dr. Rocker. "Then, kids move onto relationships with peers their own age."
Dr. Rocker sees all types of adolescent love. In some cases, the relationships are superficial and fleeting. In other cases, the relationships are based on close friendship and emotional intimacy.
"Young people feel love very intensely because they feel everything intensely," said Dr. Rocker. "I am sure some of that is biological. Those feelings are new and exciting. It also relates to a young person's concept of time. If you are 16 and are in a three-month relationship, that is a big part of your life, much more so than if you are in your 30s or 40s and involved in a three-month relationship."
Dr. Rocker has counseled many teens with broken hearts and clinical depression stemming from break-ups. Here are some of her tips for parents:
Offer an ear and perspective. Parents can help their teens get through the highs and lows of their first loves. "Be there. Listen. Strike a middle ground," said Dr. Rocker. "Don't brush it off and don't say things like, 'This is silly and you'll get over it.' On the other hand, don't take it as seriously as your child is taking it. Be reassuring."
Keep the communication lines open. Get into a good pattern when your children are young and let them know no topic is off limits. They can come to you to talk about friendships, school problems, their love life, and even their sex life.
"Obviously you would talk differently to a small child than a teenager and a young adult," said Dr. Rocker.
Don't get too involved. Remember this is your child's relationship. Be friendly and get to know your child's boyfriend or girlfriend but keep something of an emotional distance.
Keep your child well rounded. Teens who have the most trouble overcoming break-ups are often the ones who don't have much else going on in their lives, said Dr. Rocker. Family ties, friends, school, sports and hobbies provide healthy emotional outlets and are the same things adults fall back on when they have broken hearts.
Be a good role model. Children benefit when they see parents who are kind and show respect to one another, even if they are divorced.
Even the most committed couples argue from time to time. Parents can offer valuable lessons by showing their children how to argue without being disrespectful and how to resolve conflict.
Monitor media images. Children and teens are often "sexualized" in movies, TV shows, music and advertising and children can feel a society expectation to have sexual relationships before they are ready.
"Shield children from these media messages as much as possible and also talk to them about what they are seeing and how it is used to sell products or boost ratings," said Dr. Rocker. "You might not feel as if these messages make a difference, but, in fact, they do."
To view a video interview with Dr. Rocker on this topic, go to www.akronchildrens.org/story and type in the keywords, "first love."
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