Communicating Love Clearly to Teens

While we mark Valentine’s Day on the calendar as a day to show our love, it’s an emotion that we shouldn’t hesitate to express any day of the year. Love is timeless and everlasting. We can never be reminded too often of the impact it has in our children’s lives.

Communicate Love to Our Teens

Our love is perhaps the most protective, enduring force we offer our children. Why? Because it makes our children know that they are worthy of being loved. This genuine sense that they are worth being cared for offers a foundation of self-regard that will affect their behaviors and emotional well-being during adolescence. It also generates the security from which they will launch into adulthood. This feel-good emotion is also the basis from which they will enter meaningful friendships and romantic relationships far into the future.

Love is seeing someone as they deserve to be seen, as they really are, not through the lens of the behaviors they display, or what they produce.

Let Me Count the Ways…

There are so many ways we demonstrate love for our children. All of them are meaningful and protective. You likely show it using several of these ways.

  1. We tell them. This is the simplest way to express our love. “I love you.” Three small words that when put together, hold great power.
  2. We see the best in them. The world is full of people who measure our value based on how we behave or what we produce. This can be particularly harmful to adolescents. It can also make them anxious, thinking that their worthiness is related primarily to the scores they earn or the grades they achieve. They begin to see themselves as products. It’s knowing who our children are, and have always been, that can counteract these potentially destructive forces. Our knowledge of the essential good our tweens and teens possess is one of the surest ways of having teens rise to their best selves. Love is seeing someone as they deserve to be seen, as they really are, not through the lens of the behaviors they display, or what they produce.
  3. We protect them. When we monitor our children’s behavior and set clear boundaries around morality and safety beyond which they cannot stray, we make them safer. Keeping our kids safe is one of the most meaningful things we do out of love.
  4. We prepare them. We know that the world is complicated. It’s full of pushes and pulls and risks and opportunities. Preparation is protection for the future. When we prepare our children to navigate the world safely and wisely, we show them how much we care about them becoming their best selves.
  5. We are there for them. Relationships come and go. Friendships can shift — especially during adolescence. School years pass. Sometimes we leave communities. The world can feel like an unsafe, unpredictable place. Our unwavering and reliable presence is a tangible expression of our love.
  6. We do for them. We earn a living to provide for the needs of our children as best as we can. We help them with their homework. We sometimes take them where they need (and want) to go. We do those things both out of responsibility and an expression of our deep affection.

We get out of their way. Sometimes we let them try things out on their own, even fail, because we love them. We celebrate their development; we know sometimes they grow strongest when they figure things out independently.

Make Your Love Really Count

Your love is protective to your child no matter how you show it. But for it to have the greatest effect, your children have to know how much they are loved.

Although they benefit from all of the expressions of love we mentioned, it is also possible some things we do because we love our children will be misinterpreted — or may even backfire. For example, protection can be wrongly interpreted as “control”.

Overprotection can be misunderstood as lacking confidence in our children’s ability to navigate the world on their own. Our doing for our children can be taken for granted or underappreciated as being “just” our job. Our giving them room to fail and recover can be misinterpreted as our not caring.

For these reasons, we want to always express our love verbally, using whatever words are most comfortable. Remember, it is not what we feel, it is what they know we feel that offers the greatest protection. It is not what we do, it is their understanding of why we do what we do that frames our relationships and shapes their reactions.

So keep protecting, preparing, and doing for your children. Sometimes you can let go, but always remember to let them know why you do these things. Consider sharing your own version of one of the below statements to ensure that your tweens and teens understand your actions are rooted in love.

“I set rules for you because it is my job to protect you. I love you too much to see you being unsafe.”

“I prepare you for a complicated world so that you’ll be ready to handle it on your own. I love you too much to allow you to learn every lesson only after being hurt. But I trust deeply in your ability to learn, to grow, and to overcome obstacles.”

“I work so hard. But it is all worth it because I am able to provide for you as best as I can. I love you so much. Giving you a safe place to live and healthy food means the world to me.”

“I am getting out of your way, so you can learn this lesson on your own. I love you so much and no mistake or temporary failure will ever change how much I care about you. Because I love you, I want you to learn that the failures we experience give us opportunities to recover and to do better next time.”

But most of all, don’t feel like you need to tie your expression of love to anything at all.  Just speak out loud about what you are feeling. That is the surest way your teen will know what you feel and achieve that sense of self-worth that is gained best from knowing we are cared for and about.

A version of this piece was previously posted on Psychology Today.

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About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit www.fosteringresilience.com.

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