Kids begin developing an understanding of romantic love at an early age. From then on, it’s first crushes, first heartaches and first breakups. Here’s the lowdown on what love means to kids at different ages, and how parents can navigate the ups and downs.
What is love: Children this age are already beginning to form a concept of romantic relationships from watching their parents or other adults, as well as absorbing messages from the media, such as fairy tales and TV shows. According to Dr. Karen Bax, clinical psychologist, Managing Director of Western’s Research and Education Centre at Merrymount and Assistant Professor at the Western University Faculty of Education, “If you ask kids this age what a boyfriend or girlfriend is, their definition usually relates to personal closeness.” This is why they may want to marry daddy or insist that their babysitter is their girlfriend, simply because they want to spend time together.
The common concern: Kindergarten children may begin to mention a peer being their boyfriend or girlfriend, and might either discuss it enthusiastically, or become embarrassed by any mention of their new “love”.
The love lesson: “Along the whole developmental spectrum I would encourage parents not to tease or make a big deal out of these sorts of relationships,” advises Dr. Bax, “and instead be curious about them.” She suggests asking your child what they like about that particular friend, opening the door to future conversations. Mom of three, Jennifer Desmond* from Kingston, Ont., says, “At this age, I tried to steer my kids away from the crush concept, acknowledging that they are going to have special friendships, but at this point it’s just friendship.”
What is love: As kids begin to go through puberty, sexual feelings may start to emerge, leading to the beginning of an exploration of sexual attraction and their own sexuality. As well, kids at this age develop a better understanding of what love means in our western culture. “While relationships may still be about status at this age, they may start to have feelings for someone who is supportive, or whom they share a hobby, interest or emotional connection,” says Dr. Bax.
The common concern: Unrequited love, and how to support your heartbroken child after a breakup, or when their affections are not returned.
The love lesson: According to Dr. Bax, breakups are a huge challenge at this age, and parents need to be non-judgmental and acknowledge that this is a loss for them. Listen and respect their feelings, while at the same time helping them to look forward. “For adolescents, the moment is everything and their emotions are so strong. It’s important to help put the relationship into context for them.” Encourage them to go out, to spend time with other friends (it’s important to make sure they are not isolated), and maintain schoolwork and hobbies.
What is love: While we may assume relationships at this age are still “puppy love”, Dr. Bax stresses that there’s no magic age where you can definitively fall in love. “There are some adults who have not learned what love really is! It’s more about being capable than it is about age, and having the important components: the intimacy, mutual support, companionship and wanting to be together. When it’s more about care and commitment and less about status achievement, I think that’s when love occurs.” For teens, their capacity for this depends on their maturity, previous experience in relationships and their relationship role models.
The common concern: Many parents worry about the misconceptions about love that their children see in the media. Hannah Long, mom of three teens, says, “I think my biggest fear for my kids is that the Internet is the first place they go for advice and information, and what is portrayed as love online and in the media is often misleading and unrealistic.” Adds the very insightful 16-year-old Yolanda: “Falling in love is not the same as in the movies.”
The love lesson: While Dr. Bax recommends limiting media use and making sure what your child watches is developmentally appropriate, she stresses that it’s also important to have discussions about what your child is seeing, even asking them if they think the magical and transformative messages about romantic love are realistic. She also points out that “while media is a strong force, our children can also be influenced greatly by the adults in their lives, and it’s important to realize that what they see in relationships, whether in their own parents’, their friends’ parents’, or even how a teacher or other adult talks about their partner in passing, also has a very strong influence.”
Dr. Bax: You close the doors of communication when you take a hard stand with your kids about their romantic relationships or their friends. Ask them what they see in that person; sometimes parents can be surprised because what they see isn’t the same. Talk about qualities that make a good mate. In clinical practice, when a teen is in a serious relationship that we might be concerned about, I like to ask, “Do you see yourself with this person in 10 years?” Adolescents feel like the here and now is the most important thing, so sometimes helping them look to the future gives them some perspective and they realize that a long-term commitment with that person might not be what they want.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Summer 2017.