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February 3, 2014

Young love: Tips for parents to talk to children about love, Valentine's Day

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The meaning of love, crushes and dating are all topics that parents should proactively discuss with their children at an age-appropriate level, says a Purdue University child development expert.

"Talk of love is all around us on Valentine's Day, and this can be confusing for children and challenging for adolescents because the word 'love' is used in so many ways to mean so many different things," says Judith Myers-Walls, professor emeritus of child development. "In all cases and with all ages, parents and other adults should take children's feelings seriously. As adults, we may feel that crushes are silly and unreal, but they are very real to the children who experience them."

Myers-Walls says adults can help children explore ways to share feelings with the objects of their admiration without giving wrong impressions or risking too much embarrassment.

"But there will be some awkward moments in young people's explorations of love. It can't be avoided," she says. "There will be some false starts, sudden endings, misunderstandings and real growth. We cannot control these things as it is something they need to experience on their own. But we can be sounding boards, providers of suggestions and feedback, partners in celebration, and shoulders to cry on when necessary."

Here are some suggestions for specific age groups:

* For young children: Valentine's Day is about buying cards to give to everyone in the classroom and making art projects out of hearts and doilies. When talking about love with these children, it seems most appropriate to emphasize the idea of loving humankind. "Parents and teachers can encourage these children to show love and kindness to all of the children in the class and to everyone they meet," Myers-Walls says.

*Elementary children: This age group starts to focus more on girlfriend and boyfriend relationships. Valentine's card decisions are taken seriously and can be connected to some strong feelings that are either positive or negative. Although they may not actually be able to list anyone as a particular special person, they are very aware of romantic relationships and may have crushes on someone. Who that is may change a day or two later. "They are very easily embarrassed about those feelings, though, so parents and other adults should be respectful and not tease about those issues," Myers-Wall says. "It may seem funny to adults to ask an elementary child if she or he is dating anyone or engaged, but that is an embarrassing question to the child. And it may start to build an expectation that everyone should be paired up."

* Adolescents: Intimacy is a natural drive at that age. That does not mean that all adolescents have or should have a relationship with one special person. But Valentines' Day can feel very important with potentially life-changing actions. "They may dream that sending the right card or a flower or a note to a particular person will start a relationship that will last a lifetime," she says. "Or they may struggle to find a way to celebrate the day with a friend who is more serious about the relationship than they are."

 Many adolescents are emotionally intense, and Valentine's Day can magnify those feelings, Myers-Walls says. Parents and other adults should be available to listen to teens and keep an eye and ear out for how they are feeling.

"We should listen more than we talk," she says. "It could be helpful to remind them that this is just one day, and a relationship is made up of mostly ordinary days." 

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Judith Myers-Walls, jmyerswa@purdue.edu    

Related websites:

College of Health and Human Sciences
Department of Human Development and Family Studies