It doesn’t seem like five minutes passed since you were 'aww-ing' at your precious little one holding hands with another tot at nursery. Now, though, they’re in secondary school and they’re holding hands again - but this time, things could get serious.
Intellectually, we all know that our teenagers will likely fall in love at some point. When it happens, though, parents often find the whole experience something of a shock... which is rather odd, right?
We all went through the teenage stage. We too experienced the secret crushes and the blushes, the first shy declarations of love, the sense of something momentous happening... That initial, electrifying physical touch from a love interest.
Here are a few bits of advice to help you cope with their emotional roller-coaster ride… and yours.
Why Do They Have to Fall in Love So Soon?
We laugh at the cheeky little child who steals a kiss in kindergarten. In this age of social media, we upload our cheeky kissing kindergarteners for everyone to exclaim over and, if we don't have a toddler to send to nursery, we laugh and share videos of others' kids being cheeky.
It's not just a matter of a few innocently shared videos on social media, though.
Classic Disney films' running theme was 'helpless girl meets handsome prince; love and marriage ensue'. Only recently have kids' films broken that mould, coming out with empowering stories about finding one's way and discovering personal strength. Still, there are plenty of love at first sight stories going around to convince teenagers that's the way things work, even today.
And then, there's the sex angle.
From carefully curated blendings of boys and girls on billboards to jiggling, wriggling, sometimes scantily clad performers and social media influencers, our teens are constantly bombarded with subtle messages of how to be.
They are expected to be sexy - or, at least attractive. They are expected to 'like' their opposite gender - something that makes being non-binary particularly difficult. While striving to do all of that, they expect themselves to fall in love at first sight. That love is supposed to endure for all time.
Being spoon-fed such ideas from early consciousness, how can we blame kids for accelerating their progression into what they likely perceive as societal expectations - just as we did?
By no means are we suggesting a reversion to puritanical times, and external influences are not the sole reason for teens falling in love so fast and so soon. There is, of course, so much more to teenagers in love. Biology, for instance.
What Can Parents Do?
Still stuck on the cheeky cherub for a mo...
Nobody could fault any parent for finding their toddlers' antics adorable. Even sharing them on social media is not a bad thing. However, giving their antics undue weight, so much so that the child is compelled to repeat the action to provoke the same approving reaction could be a step in the wrong direction.
Praising the child's affectionate nature rather than validating their cheekiness at stealing kisses is a good way to handle such instances. "How sweet you are to greet your friend so lovingly!" gives the child a solid foundation to build a healthy self-image on.
How that response contrasts with "Look at you, all cheeky and kissing all the girls (or boys)!".
Building and reinforcing your child's sense of self from a young age is the best way to guide them toward making healthy choices throughout their life. If your kids are already teens, talking with them about body positivity, encouraging self-confidence and self-worth and building trust will allow them to focus on themselves rather than constantly seeking external validation.
They will better be able to resist adverts' and pop stars' subtle messaging, peer pressure (Everyone has a boyfriend but me!) and possibly even biology.
Do you remember how it was for you when your teenage hormones went wacky?
Why Do We React the Way We Do?
Being as we lived through what our teenagers are going through, why do we suddenly feel like we have to stop them from doing the same things we did? Hint: It may have to do with the fact that we don't necessarily look back on our experiences favourably.
There's something much more personal than our trying to prevent our teens from repeating our mistakes and trying to spare them the hurt they must inevitably endure. It's an emotional stew flavoured with selfishness.
On a lesser scale: our role as parents have defined us for more than a decade. When you call your child's school, do you identify yourself as someone's caregiver ("This is Sean's mum" or "Hello, I'm Cathy's dad")? How do you introduce yourself to other people at the school gate or the paediatrician's office?
A bit more relevant: there are no manuals for successful parenthood. To make matters worse, it is the test of a lifetime for which we don't get our marks until decades into the future. Whether parents openly acknowledge the uncertainty underpinning their parental efforts or not, it's difficult to trust oneself to know they're doing the right thing in all parental situations.
But for the most part, we're simply not ready to accept that our children are breaking away from us. They've been wholly dependent on us for all of their lives - are still dependent on us for their basic needs: food, shelter, clothing. Even the law designates us as responsible for our kids until they turn 18.
Having a firm, legally-set deadline by which we can prepare ourselves for our kids transitioning from childhood to adulthood is a fantastic idea that does nothing to prevent our kids from making adult decisions (such as falling in love) before they reach that age.
For that matter, nothing says we'll be happy with them falling in love even after they turn 18.
They are and forever will be our babies! Surrendering them to biological urges and societal imperatives is simply unacceptable. That is what most parents have a fight with themselves (and each other) about.
What Parents Can Do
When did your primary identification become '(insert name of child)'s parent'? Have you overlooked the fact that you cannot teach your children how to develop a sense of self if you don't have one of your own?
Wrapping your entire identity around your children is the surest way for you to feel anxious and frightened at any sign of them pulling away. It's also not the way for you to maintain a healthy mindset about yourself - your capabilities, dis/likes and interests or about your children.
No matter what age your children are right now, make it a point for you (and your partner) to live alongside your children - to not become subsumed by them, their lives or interests.
Naturally, that does not mean you should be neglectful of them. Neglecting yourself is the more real and present danger to avoid.
How to Live Through a Teenage Love Affair
For all of your best intentions and hard work at keeping your child safe and sheltered, s/he has gone and fallen in love anyway. Getting angry about it, putting your foot down (This will not happen!) and beating yourself up for imagined parental failures are all counterproductive.
Here's what you should do, instead.
The news that your child is now in a relationship can trigger all kinds of feelings. The outrage that they would dare, jealousy that they can, suspicion of the legitimacy of their feelings, fear that they might get into difficulties and dismay at the incontrovertible proof that your youngster is growing up.
However, you must work out which parts of your reaction are helpful to what’s going on and which are about you. It can be difficult, but a calm and thoughtful approach will be best all round.
All of that starts with trusting yourself to have done a bang up job as a parent. You've worked hard to instil in them the values and beliefs you hold for a good, healthy, purposeful life. It's now time to trust your teenager to exemplify them.
Don’t Make Judgements
You may think that your teenager is too immature to know what they're doing; that they're getting in over their head. How much of that is you insisting your teen is still a child?
You might struggle to see any redeeming features in the object of your son or daughter’s affection, but that doesn’t matter a bit. Your teenager loves this person and that’s what matters at the moment.
Instead, have faith that your child can make up their own mind about the kind of person they want to be with. Here we are with that trust thing, again! Or, at the very least, accept that s/he has a need for such experiences while still under your protection.
And, in the meantime, suck it up and do your best to welcome the object of their affections.
Have the Sex Chat
Whatever you think about it, believing it won’t happen is only fooling yourself. People - including teenagers are going to have sex. They need to do it safely.
When your child was in Key Stage 2, s/he may have taken a PSHE course that featured a topic called The Big Talk, a series of lessons accompanied by videos discussing body image, healthy relationships and sex. If so, you may have taken that opportunity to continue that discussion at home.
If not, it's no biggie but, now that there is actual potential for sexual activity, you have to talk frankly about contraception and self-respect – and help them find both.
You may have to skirt outrage, shyness or even anger - quite possibly, your teen doesn't want you in that most intimate part of their life. Defuse the situation by being as matter-of-fact as you can. If need be, try flippancy: "Sex happens, Sweetie. I just want it to be as positive an experience for you as it can be."
Set the Rules
Angelina Jolie said, in an interview, that her mother allowed the then 14-year-old Jolie's boyfriend to live with them as though she and her romantic partner were a couple. You might not have that liberal a mindset but, whatever your mindset is, you need to communicate it.
Even if you’ve reluctantly accepted your child is moving towards adult relationships, you need to set the rules.
For example, you could insist that the bedroom door never gets shut when they're in there together and that whoever is in your house follows the same rules as everyone else. You may insist on a curfew and that no alcohol or drugs fuel the relationship.
Despite your child's groundbreaking decision to adult with virtually no oversight from you, remember that s/he is still a child who needs boundaries within which s/he can explore love and sex safely.
Coming Out Healthy on the Other Side
Your teenager falling in love marks a milestone for you and them. For your son or daughter, it signals their first foray into the adult world - s/he may fall in love before s/he gets a first taste of working for wages, even.
For you, it represents a symbolic passing of a baton: your responsibility and influence - to your family and society are waning while theirs is on the rise. Your best chance for balance and peace - in your family and in your heart is accepting the inevitability of it all.
To help you get a grip on your suddenly topsy-turvy world, remember your teen romances.
At the time, your emotions were intense and you thought you knew what you were doing. And in most cases, you wouldn’t have welcomed the advice from an ‘old’ person, would you have?
The point is that, whatever happens afterwards, teenage romance is a very serious business - not just because s/he had the temerity to pull away from you but because their doing it signals that you're growing and changing, too.
Relax. It really isn’t that much of a big deal. Shift your focus away from cresting that middle-aged hill and just be yourself. Be kind and keep talking to your teenager. Before you know it, you’ll be wondering what the fuss was all about.
Still, be alert and trust your instincts. You probably have a better idea of the signs the relationship is unhealthy than your newly-emboldened teen does. You may have some serious talking ahead of you if you have to point danger signs out to your child while s/he's in love's grasp.
And, when it's all over? Be ready to help pick up the pieces.
Inevitably, young hearts will be broken. Your heart may suffer too, especially if your child turns away from you (again!) to talk things out with friends. Even if that happens, be ready to stand back while the emotional storm runs its course and, when it's done, prepare to listen and offer comfort.
Whatever you do, though: try really, really hard not to say “I told you so”.