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How to talk to your daughter about love

Valentine’s Day—what better time to talk to your teen about the crazy little thing called love?

Where to start? A good place is helping her set her bar—her standard for what she believes love is. How do we do that? By having open, two-way conversations. By giving information, like what we believe love is. And by asking questions, like “What do you believe love is?”

But remember, if you tell her “This is what I believe” without asking “What do you believe?” you’re really telling her, “I want you to believe what I believe.”

Have you ever asked yourself, “Why did I first have sex?” Personally, I thought I was in love. I also believed that if a guy said “I love you,” or wanted to have sex, he loved me. I know it sounds crazy now.  “No, it doesn’t sound crazy,” says Dr. Julius Licata, Director of TeenCentral.Net (which offers teens anonymous, on-line, free information and counseling). “It’s what many teens think.

“Teens don’t say, Love is this, love is that,” says Dr. Julius. “They believe they know love because they feel special around that person; when a person kisses them, holds them, says, ‘You’re my everything,’ that’s love. Or, if a guy says ‘Let’s hook up’—for many young girls, that’s love.”

If you asked your teen, “What do you think love is?” would she use fulfillment of her own wants and needs as one definition?  Would she say something like, “When you’re familiar with a guy (his traits, likes, dislikes), and you can accept him (for who he is, and the decisions he makes), and he’s important (you include his feelings, wants, needs, beliefs in your choices), and you value him (share what you feel, think, believe)…”

“That’s not typically what you’re going to hear from teens,” says Dr. Julius. “More often you’ll get, ‘Why are you asking?’”

The importance of dialogue

“You have to hear what your teen believes before you can offer your insight,” says Dr. Julius. “Giving your teen a chance to verbalize her beliefs is how you see where you differ, and how she comes to understand what she believes.  Her influences come from the people she communicates with, shares with. This is how she builds her beliefs. If you give orders—“You have to believe what I believe”—you’ll not be one of the people she shares with. Be open to her understanding of what love is. Don’t say ‘You don’t know what love is’. She knows what it is for her.”

“The key is to talk to her every day,” says Dr. Julius, “even if you’re busy. Even if it’s for five minutes. In time she’ll trust you and stop thinking you’re prying or trying to get information to upgrade your rule list.”

Concepts like love are difficult to verbalize. But talking about needs—the fulfillment of needs in a relationship—can help. Typically teens expect only a few needs to be met—like to notice him, desire him, to be interested in every little thing about him, to please him.

Try setting your teen’s bar with information about “getting to know” a person by using her wants and needs—for example, to become familiar with him, listen to him, understand him, value him, be interested in him, and for him to become important to her—as reasons for loving a guy.

Set your teen’s bar to love

Say your daughter meets a guy, believes she loves him and he loves her. Ask her: “Is love a good reason to have sex with a guy?” Then let her talk.

“Many teens will say yes,” says Dr. Julius, “If your teen says yes, there’s really not much you can say to convince her otherwise. But asking ‘What do you think love is?’ is a good opening. If she won’t say, she has no idea. Don’t push it beyond where she wants to go. Truly hear what she has to say, make no judgments, then try sharing with her what you think love is.”

If, after two weeks of knowing your daughter, a guy said to her, “You’re my life, I love you, let’s express our love in sex,” would your daughter believe him? “Many teens would,” says Dr. Julius.

You’d know your daughter was dealing with this issue only if she told you. But many teens won’t. That’s why it’s so important to help her develop a bigger picture of what love is. Share this heart-saving shortcut with her: “When a guy tells you he loves you, those are just words. Love is what you experience when he’s happily meeting your needs and you’re happily meeting his, all the while maintaining your self-respect and meeting your own needs, too.”

That’s not crazy, and it’s not little. It’s love.

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