Talking to Teens about Love

When our Teen Decision program comes to a school, teens often are often either nervous, or skeptical about our “sex ed” program.  I once had someone write me that they’d expected the presenter (me) to be an “old lady with warts” but was pleasantly surprised to find our program fun, informative, and relevant to teens’ real lives.  While we do discuss the benefits of abstinence (and the risks of sexual activity), we spend FAR more time talking about relationships, knowing that teaching them how to recognize and have healthy relationships is far more effective in helping teens make good choices about sex than scaring them about teen pregnancy and STDs…although there is a place for healthy fear about these very possible consequences!  And you know what?  That’s what teens really want to talk about as well…relationships…love! Now that it’s summer, love (or infatuation more likely) may even be blooming for the teen in your love foreverhome!  I found this article about talking to teens about love, and I thought it could help you to talk with the teen in your life about what love is, and how to learn how to BE a healthy person in a healthy relationship.  I particularly liked one point the author made, that we can help any young person recognize that a good dating partner is someone who has demonstrated the qualities of a good friend:

What about a younger child who isn’t necessarily old enough for a romantic relationship? Is there a way you could ease into the topic?

The basics, like how to choose a friend. The same skills that kids would use to choose a friend — whether it’s generosity or kindness or loyalty or empathy — those are the same traits they’re going to be looking for later in a relationship. So parents can help guide kids, and they can lead that discussion at home.

I do a lot of work in the younger grades with friendship skills: reciprocity, reflective listening, turn-taking, sharing. All of these very basic skills that you need to teach young kids so that later on, they not only have the skills to maintain a healthy relationship, they’ll know how to identify a healthy relationship, too.

Fifty Shades of Unhealthy

Ball and chainWith the arrival in theaters this month of Fifty Shades Darker, it’s time to get a sensible look at the messages of this book and movie series. With regard to teens, there’s nothing gray about this…it’s pretty black and white. Dr. Miriam Grossman wrote about the messages in this movie HERE, but I want to concentrate on a particularly persistent myth that I see not just in this movie series, but in the psyches of too many girls (and grown women). Dr. Grossman states the myth this way:  “Christian’s emotional problems are cured by Anastasia’s love.”  Haven’t we all seen the “bad boy” syndrome? I’ve been asked by decent, honorable, respectful guys: “Why do the girls seem to go for the bad boys?”  I have two theories.  One is that they are so deeply bonded to the guy (usually because they’ve gone pretty far sexually), that they ignore/excuse/tolerate what they would normally recognize as abominable behavior and an unhealthy relationship. It’s not glamorous, loving or healthy to accept abuse (emotional and/or physical), humiliation, manipulation, control or force.  My second theory is that there is a powerful fantasy in thinking that MY love, MY attractiveness (a bit of narcissism?) can cure a seriously sick and unhealthy person.  How many times have you (or your teen) talked yourself blue in the face trying to help someone see that their partner is a jerk, only to watch the train hurtle toward the inevitable crash.  As Grossman points out: “Only in a movie. In the real world, Christian wouldn’t change to any significant degree.” And further, “In the real world, this story would end badly, with Christian in jail,  and Ana in a shelter – or morgue. Or maybe Christian would continue beating Ana, and she’d stay and suffer. Either way, their lives would most definitely not be a fairy tale.”  Please discuss these ideas with your sons and daughters, so they are reminded that unhealthy people make for unhealthy relationships, and your child deserves to be treated with caring, respect, empathy, and consideration. Toxic relationships are not handcuffs that are part of sex play like in the Fifty Shades story, they are chains and bonds that can drag a person under for years, even decades.

“Love” might just be a chemical high

Much of the gossip in the hallways of the middle and high schools Teen Decision serves is about who is dating whom, and which couple just broke up (usually with a lot of drama).  It’s “sweet” and “romantic” in the beginning, sure. But…give it a few weeks or months, some significant pain and heartache, and one or both decides it wasn’t love after all.  One teacher who has Teen Decision come speak to her students said: “Most kids are shocked when they find out that their high school sweetheart probably won’t be their forever.” broken heart

So what WAS it then?  Those feelings were so REAL!

As we help our children process the intense feelings that are sure to come with romantic attraction and attachment, it would serve them well if we also helped them understand the “chemistry” of love.

I was sent this fantastic video by a representative of the DuPage County Health Department who has seen the Teen Decision program.  It talks about the “chemistry” of love, and the need to avoid making any premature decisions that commit more of you, your time or your resources, when in that initial (and transitory) state we might more accurately call infatuation. While targeted to young adults, it would make an interesting conversation to watch this with your teen, especially in regard to how physical touch and quick commitment can lead to not just heartache, but lasting consequences…like teen pregnancy and STDs. A few questions to ask after watching the video together might be:

  • This video talks about young adults.  What do TEENS do that commit themselves to each other in a way that is hard to get out of later?
  • How do teens say they “know” they are in love? Are those things a proof that love is real?
  • Do you know someone who is or was in an unhealthy relationship, and didn’t even recognize it?  Why did they stay in the relationship so long?
  • If only 2-3% of married people started as high school sweethearts, most couples who thought they were in love, were not.  What do you think real love looks like, long term?

Could it happen to my child? Would I know?

I remember vividly two letters I received from students last year recounting the effects of sexual abuse in dating relationships. In one case, a girl was experiencing constant nightmares a full two years after experiencing sexual force in a relationship with her 8th grade boyfriend. The other was depressed and cutting, again years after sexual abuse in a middle school relationship.  But sexual abuse doesn’t just happen in the context of romantic dating relationships. It may happen at the hands of a “trusted” family friend, neighbor, or family member.  We all hate to think it could happen, and parents may be the ones most likely to think “I would know if my child had been abused.” However, if some estimates are true that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys have been abused in some way sexually before the age of 18, then many more of us have children who have experienced abuse than we think.  Why don’t our children tell us?  According to an article about child sexual abuse, children don’t tell because of…

  • Threats of bodily harpensive-teenm (to the child and/or the child’s family)
  • Fear of being removed from the home
  • Fear of not being believed
  • Shame or guilt

The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress says: “If the abuser is someone the child or the family cares about, the child may worry about getting that person in trouble. In addition, children often believe that the sexual abuse was their own fault and may not disclose for fear of getting in trouble themselves. Very young children may not have the language skills to communicate about the abuse or may not understand that the actions of that perpetrator are abusive, particularly if the sexual abuse is made into a game.”

Do your children know that they can talk to you?  That you will listen? Maybe it’s time to have a conversation.  Start with reading this article, and when you have that conversation, be sure to let your children know YOU can be trusted to listen and understand, and that nothing that might have happened to them is their fault.

In addition, here are some local resources…hotlines you or your child can call.

YWCA West Suburban Center. Glen Ellyn. Hotline: (630) 971-3927

Community Crisis Center. Elgin. Hotline: (847) 697-2380

Northwest CASA. Arlington Heights. Hotline: (888) 802-8890

Mutual Ground, Inc. Aurora. Hotline: (630) 897-8383



Not your grandma’s sex ed program…

One of the funniest comments I ever got was from a student who said that at first she expected to see some old person with warts show up as the Teen Decision speaker.  Others were similarly relieved…”‘I like how you didn’t just say ‘Sex is bad. Don’t have sex.  Back in my day….’  You talked about how it actually is.”  While we immediately dispel students’ notions about boring tori-libby-teaching_teen-decision_high-school-3or irrelevant sex ed, it’s not so easy to dispel the misconceptions many ADULTS have about the abstinence message.  Today I watched a YouTube video of a 20-something sex educator who has multiple videos mocking abstinence education as “abstinence only,” “pledge cards,”  “purity rings,” and “lies, lies, lies.” The false stereotypes were rampant…and it made my blood boil. So, let’s tackle just one common misconception:  That abstinence education is “shame-based.”  One of the ways to connect with teens, whether as a parent, or a Teen Decision speaker, is for them to know you understand their world, their feelings and the pressures they face.  That includes the desire for a boyfriend or girlfriend and the urge to express their desires physically.  Shame is a poor motivator, and is never part of our classroom presentation, nor should it be how you approach your child. Instead, we’re matter-of-fact about discussing sex. And that makes it less awkward.  There was a study some years ago of teen-parent conversations about sex.  When parents didn’t show nervousness or discomfort (I know, that’s not easy!) but were straightforward and calm when discussing sex, teens were more likely to be OK with having those conversations, less nervous themselves, and more likely to feel parents (YOU) could be approached with questions and concerns. We want to send the message that there’s no shame in having feelings and desires, but managing those desires in a way that leads to good relationships and dating practices is key to a healthier, happier future.

Next time, I’ll tackle another misconception…that the message to wait to have sex is “fear-based.”

So They Think They’re In Love…

One of the most important things we at Amplify try to get across to teens is the need to take time to get to know someone well before any physical or emotional involvement.  There’s good reason for this, because someone who is in that irrational phase of “love” that we might better term “infatuation” is…well…a bit crazy.  According to an article in the New York Times reporting on brain research using MRI technology: “New love can look for all the world like mental illness, a blend of mania, dementia and obsession that cuts people off from friends and family and prompts out-of-character behavior – compulsive phone calling, serenades, yelling from rooftops – that could almost be mistaken for psychosis.”  All of us remember what that feels like.  I’ve often said that if I kept that crazy-in-love feeling for my soon-to-be husband much longer than I did, I would not have been able to graduate college, my brain was so addled.  Unfortunately, some young people make rash commitments (like marrying in a month), or decisions (like hopping in bed with someone) before the rational part of their brain gets a chance to weigh in.  Knowing this, when one of my daughters wanted to date for the first time in high school, we required that the two go through an initial period in their relationship where they group dated first…hanging out with friends or family rather than going on one-on-one dates.  That gave them time to get to know each other better, and find out about each others’ character.  I just put this strategy out there as something to consider as you think through helping your teens make good dating decisions.

Twilight Mania…An Opportunity to Talk

If you haven’t noticed, young girls (and sometimes their moms too) are caught up in Twilight mania. If you have a daughter, you may want to take the opportunity to discuss this movie and book series’ positive and negative messages about relationships.  Even if they haven’t seen it (or aren’t allowed to), they’ve surely heard discussions about it.  Here are some questions, and points to consider as you talk to your daughter (and even sons might be interested in why girls are so gaga about the Twilight series)…

Why are girls so crazy about Edward?

He’s perfect, beautiful, has superhuman powers, centers his whole life around Bella….but is this what you can expect from a real guy?

What is the attraction that Edward feels for Bella based on?

Her scent…i.e. a purely physical, intense attraction based on external qualities, not based on character.  This is the equivalent of the intense attraction that we call “infatuation” and that is often mistaken for love.  It may end in real love, but more often not.

What is admirable about the way Edward treats Bella?

He is willing to sacrifice himself for her, thinks of her welfare first, protects her from danger, and exhibits self-control in that he wants to wait until marriage to have sex.

What is troubling about this relationship?

It’s focused entirely on one another (unhealthy obsession).  Their identity is wrapped up in the other person. The attraction is not based on character, sexual tension/attraction is intense in the books AND movies, protectiveness may be controlling (a key indicator in an abusive relationship) in a real-life guy.

What do you think a romantic relationship should be based on if it’s going to last?

Friendship, similar values, forgiving and learning to accept imperfections in the other person.  Support of individual growth and development, and independent, unique qualities, etc.

Mugs in the News

As a self –defense instructor, father and an educator to our youth, I like to keep up on what’s happening in my own back yard. So after reading a couple recent news stories in our local paper ( really it was on the web, does anyone read newspapers anymore? ) regarding sex offenders in our area, I felt like sharing this link with you. It will help keep you  aware of what’s going on in your community. Check out the left side on the page and look at ” Mugs in the News”.

Resources: Sexting Info, Dating Discussions, and the 3 in 10 Statistic

Today’s post is a potpourri of information for you, parents. I couldn’t decide which topic I wanted to focus on, so I decided I’d share three different things with you. All the documents are printable, so you can run them off and keep them handy!

W4YM uses the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy as a resource quite often. Although it is not considered “abstinence only”, it is an excellent source of information about teen culture, pregnancy and STDs.

This week I noticed an article on sexting that has plenty of interesting statistics for parents. Are you wondering how prevalent sexting really is amongst our teens? Check it out.

Additionally, the National Campaign had scripts for parents who want to talk to their teens about relationships and dating. When reading through this, I thought some of the wording was a bit cliche, but it does set a framework for how you can start and continue a conversation. If you don’t like the wording, or think it may cause some eye-rolling, keep the concept but substitute some of your own words.

Finally, during our parent workshops, we inform parents that current statistics show that roughly 3 in 10 teen girls will become pregnant by the end of high school. A startling statistic, no? How do they figure it out? Read it here: