By Cynthia Bond
Shiny red heart shaped boxes of chocolate, a fluffy bear holding an I love you pillow stitched between its paws, roses, chalky Sweethearts heralding: Be Mine, Text Me, Love Bug, Miss You, special gifts and most importantly LOVE are expectations many have for Valentine’s Day. However for teens, the intense pressure they often feel to be the #valentinesday #love Instagram #perfect couple, cuddled together, smiling – handsome boy and thin girl with flawless makeup and winning smile, is at times unbearable.
While flowers die, the box of chocolate is left a waste of half-eaten creams, and the Sweethearts company went bankrupt this year, the necessity to be in a couple remains. This often forces teenagers to quickly try to form relationships as they would frantically search for a date to the prom; to stay in unhealthy relationships; or for teens in healthy relationships, there is still often the desire to “do it right” to “be the perfect couple” or to push the boundaries sexually. Teens not in relationships can isolate with feelings of low self-worth swirling and growing leading to the painful question: What’s wrong with me?
This need can extend to friendships. Some teens at their school may bring valentine’s cards, cookies or candy for only a few. This can become a painful, visible and tangible sign for them that they are not as “loveable” as others. Feelings of shame and embarrassment can arise –because others can see, can witness that they are not “popular” or worst, that they are not important to anyone. How many valentines someone receives begins to equal the amount of self-worth.
Parents often wonder how they can help their children navigate these stormy waters. What can they say to prepare their teen for what may or may not lay ahead?
“Our job is to protect our children,” Marcy Habin, 42-year-old Mom of Tracy, 16, and Ethan, 14, said, “I never had to worry about Tracy, she always had a group of girls who shared friendship bracelets, that sort of thing. But Ethan broke my heart.”
Marcy continued, “They sold valentines in his elementary school, kids bought them at lunch and they were handed out in class on Valentine’s Day. One year, Ethan didn’t get a single one. He came home crying. The next year I bought a bunch and wrote that they were from me, his dad, his uncle and aunt, grandparents, you know, everybody in the family. I think I even wrote one was from our cat – you know, to be funny. That way when they came to class to pass them out, he’d have a lot. So he wouldn’t feel so bad.”
When asked if that solved the problem, Tracy looked down and said, “When I picked him up from school he was just as sad. I asked him why and he said it was embarrassing. That students had asked who they were from and he’d had to tell them. Worst, he still hadn’t gotten any from his friends. I think that’s when I learned that I couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t ever take the place of him having more friends. That’s when he was 8. Now that he’s 14 I just try to be there for him. He’s got a couple of good friends. It’s not cool for guys to give other guys Valentine’s Day anything. It’s kinda lame for him, you know?”
Carol Nalin, a veteran Parenting Couch at Paradigm Treatment agrees whole-heartedly, “Most parents who come to me, if they see their teen struggling the natural instinct is to fix it – to go in there, because, they say, they know more about life, they can help.”
She continues, “It’s not really about that one day a year. With social media it’s how many likes you get, how many people follow you, or they see someone at a party they aren’t invited to and the negative self-talk begins which can lead to anxiety and depression.”
“Some parents try to get in there and say things like ‘Oh she’s not as pretty as you.’ Most teens don’t feel that that’s genuine. Of course their parents are going to say that.”
Just like the Mom who tried to save her son from the embarrassment, parents can’t ‘make it better.’
So What Can Parents Do?
According to Carol and words of wisdom other counselors and therapists at Paradigm Treatment shared, the following points became clear:
- Start the day with something fun: Make a special breakfast, give them a small present. Don’t make a big deal out of it… (Heaven forbid!)
- Validate their feelings: If your teen comes to you with a problem, or they are sad about feeling left out, don’t say things like, “You shouldn’t feel that way, you’ve got so much going for you” Or “It’s not the end of the world.” That will stop the conversation cold. Instead say, “Tell me more about that.”
- Listen. If your child begins telling you how they feel, be quiet and listen. Instead of sharing your stories of being in the same situation, or telling how they should feel, let them get it all out, even if it’s sad or angry. This might be hard to do for you, but it’s how teens learn and grow.
- Help them figure it out for themselves. Once your teen has shared their feelings, don’t tell them what to do. Instead ask your teen, “What is it you need that you’re not getting.” If they feel like answering, then follow up with, “How do you think you can get that.”
- Lay a groundwork of trust. Before Valentine’s Day or any special day parents can help their children know their home is a safe space for their feelings.
- Encourage. Try to notice what your teen has done great that day or any day. Turn the focus to things that they are interested in, what have they done great that day?
- Allow your teen to have a broken heart. Believe it or not, broken hearts and some disappointment is good for your child. They will experience this in their life more than once. What better time to learn this lesson, develop this muscle than when they are living with you?
- Support health friendships. Ask if your child if they’d like to do something with a friend.
- Give them privacy. Don’t knock on the door when your teen comes home. Allow them to process the day on their own.
- Observe. If your teen doesn’t come to you and you see that they are upset, instead of asking, “What’s wrong?” You can say something that you observe. “Wow you seem like you’re sad, tell me more about that.”
- Set boundaries. If your child is in a relationship and they are going on a date, remember, it’s alright to set boundaries. Let them know what you expect and do not expect, when to be home, where they are allowed to go. They may follow what you say, or they may not, but setting the rule is the best way to show guidance.
Remember you are your teen’s support, on Valentine’s Day and every day. Also, give yourself a break. You won’t do it “right” all the time, and you won’t get a pat on the back, or have your teen say, “Good job Mom (and/or) Dad” you really made Valentine’s Day better. (That may not come until they are in their 30s!) Just know that you are incredibly important to them, love and listen to them, AND REMEMBER TO ENJOY YOUR OWN VALENTINE’S DAY AS WELL!