Teaching teens about love and how to recognize a toxic relationshipWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
Have you made it all the way through “the sex talk” with your adolescent? Along the way, what did you tell them about finding love?
By the time kids are old enough to start dating, they often think they know what romantic love should be like, especially since they are constantly bombarded by secular messages about it. But once teens enter the dating scene, romantic relationships can become pretty confusing.
Even solid role models for youth struggle. After a much-publicized breakup with her long-time boyfriend a few years ago, Duck Dynasty star Sadie Robertson admitted that false ideas about romance had blinded her to problems in their relationship.
In her Live Original blog, Robertson recounted how she and her ex-boyfriend mistook their ability to “kiss and make up” for proof that they were in love, rather than questioning why their fights were so frequent. Robertson wrote, “At one point I began to believe that the essence of passion was emotion. Where you fight but make it through and kiss to forget. It was a love that was formed from the hard times.”
If we’re to prepare our kids well – and save them from heartache as much as possible – our teens need us to paint them a clear picture of what healthy, biblical love looks like in a romantic relationship.
And they need to know, too, what love’s counterfeits look like – the behaviours they should never consider normal or acceptable.
So just where do you begin a conversation like that? Here are some scripts you can use to open up the discussion. If the scripts don’t feel natural to you, that’s okay; perhaps the points covered will still be helpful as you decide on alternative ways to launch into these important conversations.
1. Infatuation and sexual attraction is not love
Do you remember how you used to really like/have a crush on __________? (person's name).
(Or alternatively: Are any of your friends really into someone right now?)
Over time, you’re going to meet a number of guys/girls that you’re especially attracted to. When you learn that they’re interested in you too, it feels awesome, doesn’t it? It’s a really exciting time.
Now that you’re getting older though, I want you to know that you can expect those feelings of attraction to a particular guy/girl to get a lot stronger. You may find that the feelings you have for them are very intense, and that the sexual excitement that you feel when you’re around them is really strong too.
A lot of young people make the mistake, at this point, of thinking they’re in love, when in reality, it’s just infatuation that’s getting an extra boost from the sexual energy people start to feel in their teen years.
It’s important for you to know the difference between infatuation and real love for someone.
Infatuation and sexual attraction isn’t love, because it’s largely self-centred. It often develops before you know much about what the other person is really like. Infatuation tends to be based on how the other person makes you feel and what they can do for you, rather than really caring about the other person’s well-being or taking time to get to know who they really are.
Infatuation and sexual attraction tends to be selfish, clingy and impatient, and affection for the other person tends to be short-lived. Pretty soon another person comes along who looks more interesting.
2. True romantic love develops slowly
It isn’t too surprising that the Bible’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 begins with “Love is patient,” because real love takes time to grow.
Real love takes time to develop because it’s based on in-depth knowledge of a person. You’ve had time to realize that your idealized version of who you thought they were or who you imagined them to be was not quite correct.
Real love also takes time to develop because love is not just an overwhelming emotion. In reality, the ability to love someone is a skill that a person needs to learn. It takes time and determined practice to get past the self-centred perspective we’re so accustomed to as a single person, so we can genuinely love someone else.
When two people are mature and truly know how to love the other, here’s what you’ll see in their relationship:
Mutual care for each other – a habit of helping to satisfy the other person’s wants and needs, hopes and dreams, so they can feel fulfilled
Mutual respect for each other – a habit of protecting the other person’s self-esteem and reputation, and allowing them freedom to make their own choices and have their own opinions
Equal power in the relationship – decisions are made together with equal consideration for each other’s opinions; nothing is ever taken from the other without their consent
Equal responsibility in the relationship – although their roles may be different, no one benefits at the expense of the other. Both partners put in equal effort, whether it’s with chores or anything else, and both share the rewards. And both admit when they’ve done something to hurt or upset the other person, and they’re quick to change their behaviour for the better
3. How to recognize an abusive dating relationship
There’s a lot to learn about love. When you’re getting to know someone you’re interested in, you’re also learning about their understanding of love. You need to figure out where they’re at, and whether they know what mature, biblical love really is.
It’s possible you’ll discover that your date’s idea of what constitutes “love” – and even what is acceptable dating behaviour – is surprisingly immature, selfish and worldly.
There are some patterns of behaviour you should watch for that tend to be warning signs of serious trouble ahead. Anyone acting in these ways is not showing love; they are showing abusive, controlling behaviour toward you, and it’s likely to get worse as your relationship progresses.
Watch out for situations like these that are not isolated incidents, but come up again and again:
Belittling, disrespectful behaviour
This may look like . . .
- calling you a demeaning name – even if they seem to be teasing
- making jokes at your expense or embarrassing you in front of friends; sharing personal information about you that embarrasses you
- acting intellectually superior by dismissing your ideas and opinions and insisting that they know better
- acting spiritually superior by lecturing or tutoring you in spiritual matters, rather than being excited to explore God’s Word together and learn from you too
- frequently pointing out your weaknesses “so you can grow,” yet being unreceptive to insights about their own character from you
- making light of your accomplishments or your future goals.
Overbearing, controlling behaviour that tries to restrict your freedom
This may look like . . .
- pestering you or hassling you when you disagree with them, hoping you’ll give in
- becoming angry when you disagree with them (rather than just disappointed)
- making threats when you disagree with them – even if you think they don’t really mean it
- punishing you for not doing what they wanted. For example, by withdrawing affection or not showing up for a date
- pressuring you to abandon your principles about important things like sexual purity or obeying the law
- showing resentment of time you spend on hobbies and interests that don’t involve them
- jealous behaviour that tries to pull you away from your closest friends, or away from your family
- texting you frequently when you can’t be together or insisting you “check in with them” regularly
- threatening to hurt themselves if you end the relationship.
Lack of humility and lack of concern about personal holiness
This may look like . . .
- lack of remorse when they’ve hurt your feelings, or apologizing but never changing their behaviour
- claiming they had good motives for treating you badly. For example, by saying something like, “It’s just that I love you so much, my jealousy made me angry.”
- blaming you for triggering their bad behaviour
- expecting you to make most of the sacrifices in your relationship
- being unreceptive to an honest conversation about difficult areas of your relationship.
And, of course, the biggies like physical or sexual abuse
This includes . . .
- pulling your hair, hitting you or pushing you against a wall
- restraining you against your will
- pressuring you to view pornography; unwanted sexting
- pressuring you to send them sexually explicit photos
- taking sexually explicit photos of you without your permission
- distributing sexually explicit photos of you
- pressuring you to have sex or oral sex when you don’t want to.
If your teen does reveal that they’re in a dating relationship that’s less than ideal, be aware that many teens will opt to stay put, believing that a difficult romance is better than none at all. They’ll need your encouragement to trust that God has someone more mature in mind for them.
To that end, you may find it helpful to share this Focus on the Family broadcast featuring Sadie Robertson with your son or daughter. In a discussion focused on overcoming anxiety, Robertson candidly shares how hard it was to trust God in letting go of her boyfriend (while acknowledging her part in contributing to their problems). Eventually though, Robertson entered a new and much healthier romance with her now-fiancé, Christian.
As you talk with your teen, please be ready in case the unthinkable comes to light. Your child might reveal profoundly disturbing incidents, or confess that they’re already sexually involved with a controlling boyfriend or girlfriend.
How you react in that moment will be supremely important. It's imperative that you stay calm in your child’s presence rather than flying off the handle. You must show your child that you’re a safe person to confide in. There’s a possibility your child is in imminent danger of serious physical harm, and a daughter may also be at risk of becoming pregnant by her abuser. All things considered, the very last thing you want is for your child to clam up and stop confiding in you.
Even if the level of toxicity in the relationship seems to be mild, leaving the relationship could put your child at risk of unforeseen reprisals – you and your child may need to proceed with caution. If you have concerns, please don’t hesitate to call our counsellors to discuss your child’s situation (1.800.661.9800).
Older teens and young adults in a difficult romantic relationship will benefit from reading Leslie Vernick’s book The Emotionally Destructive Relationship.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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