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anthony e. wolf on parenting?

It's almost Valentine's Day, a time when young hearts turn to love.

Thirteen-year-old Jeannine couldn't wait to tell her friend the big news.

"Omigod, Cameron looked at me in science class. Should I put the mystery Valentine on his desk like we talked about?"

"I don't know, Jeannine. Are you sure he looked at you, and it wasn't Tessa he was looking at?"

"I don't know. I don't know. What should I do?"

Ryan's mom was talking to her friend about her 17-year-old son.

"He showed me this necklace he bought for Elena that he's going to give to her for Valentine's Day, and it was like $400. I mean, that's a couple months worth of what he earns working at his part-time job. I think he's way too serious about her."

"Well, they have been going out for almost a year."

"Thirteen months, seventeen days, actually. That's what he said this morning."

Teenage love is very real. Not just sex, but love. It could be the seemingly mindless crush of a 13-year-old girl on a boy in her science class, or the far more mature love relationship of a high school senior for his long-time girlfriend.

Teen love is disconcerting to parents because it often appears so strong and all-consuming. Jeannine writes "Cameron" on her sneakers and all over her notebook. Ryan and Elena text each other non-stop throughout the day, and they're treated like a married couple by their friends. It's an outside force that seems to sweep away a lot of their rationality - and your influence on them.

This comes with adolescence. Their once strong childhood attachment to you is now refocusing into a new, sometimes intense, attachment to someone separate from home and family. But it's a good process - an important part of maturing. Your teen is learning to care deeply about someone other than themselves. It is the foundation of what, hopefully, will lead to true love relationships in their adult life.

What's your role?

Love, by its nature, is an obsession. But if you see the other parts of their life being adversely affected - grades dropping off, little contact with former friends, your child constantly unhappy and on edge, it may be time for you to intervene. Having a love relationship is supposed to be a mostly positive experience, not something that makes your life miserable. You may not necessarily be able to end the relationship, but you can try to limit the proportion of their waking day that they spend directly involved with their teen love.

Otherwise, your best role is as a supportive sounding board.

The big mistake that parents make is trying to play down - and inadvertently demean - the seriousness of the relationship. That will immediately turn them off.

Here are a few phrases that are singularly not useful:

"You'll get over it."

"You'll see, honey, it's not such a big deal. It only feels like it.'

"This happens to everybody. It's just a stage."

Such comments invariably get: "You don't understand."

And maybe you don't, because to them the feelings are very real.

"Ryan, $400 dollars is a lot to spend on a present."

He will be affronted. "You don't understand. I want to get it for Elena. It's what I want to do. It makes me happy giving it to her."

The problem is that you can't really influence the direction of the relationships. Mainly you just need to validate their feelings, and let them know that you are a sympathetic ear.

"You really like Cameron."

"Yeah, I really do."

"You're very serious about Elena."

"I know you think I'm too young to be this serious. But I really love Elena."

And if there are breakups, you want to be there to commiserate, to give them support and comfort. But they will also have to ride it out, and for a high school senior in love, that can be a very painful and very slow process.

For infatuated thirteen year olds, it can be a little more swift.

"Mom, Mom, there's this really cute new kid in my English class. I think his name is Jerome."

"What about all those "Camerons" written on your sneakers?"

"Oh, I can white them out."

Sometimes teen loves can seem very childish. But they are a part of a newly emergent, very adult part of your teen.

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