By Dr. Angelique Jenney, Wood’s Homes Research Chair in Children’s Mental Health
“We as a society are failing to prepare young people
for perhaps the most important thing they will do in life
– learn how to love and develop caring, healthy romantic relationships”
(Weissbourd, Anderson, Cashin, & McIntyre, 2017)
A recent long-term Harvard study, Making Caring Common, about teens and sexuality has some important messages in it for parents. The main finding? Parents are failing their young adults in one critical area; talking to them about how to have a healthy relationship. Even more interesting, was the number of young adults who indicated they wanted to have these conversations with their parents. Who knew?
The very well-laid out report provides several key findings.
Part one: What’s love got to do with it? Well, everything, actually.
Teens and adults tend to greatly overestimate the size of the ‘hook-up culture’ and these misconceptions can be detrimental to young people:
Many of you just breathed an audible sigh of relief. What you don’t know, is that your teens will too when they get this information. What the study found is that this myth is putting a lot of pressure on teens to engage in sexual activities they might not be ready for. Turns out that our lectures and warnings aren’t nearly as important as exploring ideas and providing reassurance that what they are doing (or not doing in this case) is healthy and normal.
Large numbers of teens and young adults are unprepared for caring, lasting romantic relationships and are anxious about developing them:
For example, of the several thousand young people surveyed, 38% wished to know more about ‘how to have a more mature relationship’. In a largely unscientific statement, 100% of adults are wondering about this too!
But seriously, there is such a struggle to determine what will be permanent vs temporary in relationships. It’s perhaps why children (and sometimes their parents) spend years trying to understand when separation and divorce occur in their families. If the narrative is ‘real love is forever’, then how does this happen? How do people love, and then stop loving? We talk about puppy love, romantic love, platonic love, real love (vs lust or infatuation) and the worst ones of all; conditional love and unrequited love. How many different kinds of love can our children tell us about? Have we given them the language of love and of loving?
Click here to read more here about how to talk to teens about healthy relationships.
Not surprisingly, 36% of those in the Harvard study wanted to know about ‘how to deal with breakups, and 34% wanted to know ‘how to avoid getting hurt in a relationship’; however, what is surprising is perhaps the lack of emphasis parents place on these issues, often being dismissive because of the age of the kids involved or the length of the relationship. We don’t put the same kind of value on teen relationships, but these are the very places that young people begin the process of learning about love. This is especially important because the only way to get the most out of a relationship is to experience authentic vulnerability – but if no one really wants to get hurt (and who does?) that level of vulnerability can seem unattainable, and then ultimately that level of intimacy that we crave becomes unattainable.
As Tina Turner once crooned:
What’s love got to do with it?
What’s love, but a second hand emotion
What’s love got to do with it?
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?
Love is not in fact a second hand emotion, it’s the first emotion, and it’s what brings most of us into this world. What if we could normalize the experience, and provide the expectation that hearts do get broken, but that it’s never permanent? We could help better prepare our children for the emotional work that lies ahead of them. It might seem simplistic, but a good metaphor is to consider goals for mastery in any skill. If we liken it to practising to be really good at a sport, instrument or academic pursuit, it’s well known that you will experience failure at some point. And this always hurts, but it makes us better in the end. Each time we fail, we learn something valuable to take with us into the next relationship. And what’s important is that our kids aren’t just learning not to let themselves love again.
Click here to learn about how to talk to our kids about break-ups.
Be sure to stay tuned for part two of our look at how parents can deal with tough, important misogyny and sexual harassment-related issues with their children.
Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your friends, family and community – let’s work together!