Should You Tell Your Teenagers About Your Past Love Relationships?

Should you tell your teenager about your own past sweethearts?  How much do you tell and how do you talk about it?  A journalist recently e-mailed me those questions and it got me thinking.  She quotes me in her story, but I feel the urge to elaborate a bit.

Recent psychological research on "happiness" makes clear that relationships are pivotal to happiness.    Studies of people's regrets in life show that relationship regrets top the list  [Not financial regrets, which actually are low on the list].   Personally, we all know that we have experienced the heights of happiness and the depths of despair over relationships.  Now we are parents and want our children to be happy.   We've learned a lot, wish we knew then what we know now, and want to help our teenagers. 

Don't you sometimes wish you could teach them what you've learned about relationships?  We probably all wish we could somehow "download" to our children all that we've learned about men or women, about love and loss, and about what's most important if a relationship is going to last for decades.   We could lead them to happiness and shelter them from despair!  But, alas, it's one of the harshest (or perhaps most splendid) facts of life:  Our children will struggle and learn about love and relationships for themselves.   We can't tell it to them!  Maybe we can watch and guide a bit.

And these aren't new topics.  Ovid tried to teach about love more than 2000 years ago.  Available in a modern translation, in reading Ovid's "Art of Love" we see how little has changed!  Whether you're taking your girlfriend to a gladiator match or a hockey game!  Scribing on parchment or sending text messages ... So little changes at the core of relationships and love, yet everyone has to struggle to learn it for themselves.  As parents we certainly can help, but it has its limits (e.g., What teen is going to listing to their Mom or Dad lecture on love?) and its pitfalls (e.g., The parent may convey negative or defensive attitudes, or push their teen away, even if they had the best of intentions).

We can talk around the dinner table about how people relate to one another -- how people may be thinking and feeling, how their words and actions reflect what's happening "inside them," "down deep."    Self-awareness and perspective-taking.  We can teach "understanding others," which I've long argued is at least as important as understanding ourselves.  This is something we want to be doing with our children from the youngest age.  It isn't something we start doing the day our daughter announces that she has a boyfriend! 

[Photo by C. Hindy:  If your first love was a Ford Mustang, that's a whole different story!]

Keep in mind that we are "teaching" them much more effectively about relationships by what we role model for them in the present time, than by what we tell them, or God forbid, preach to them about our pasts.  The love relationships which your children observe in their own home, throughout their childhood and teen years, are one of the two most important influences on their own relationships.  The other is the relationship you have with each of them.  Together, what they observe and experience, will shape them far more than what you try to teach verbally.  As parents, it sometimes seems that our words are used by our teenagers more often to point out how we are hypocrites!  "Well, you say one thing and do another." What you do will carry more weight than what you say.

Of course you don't want to tell your teens about your past relationships in ways that are disparaging, which might say more about yourself and your "baggage."  Nor do you want to talk in ways that would be hurtful about children's parent or others in the household.   Judging others often says more about the judge than the judged, and your teens' radar will detect that quickly.

Be aware of the attitudes about men and women that are embodied or implied in what you communicate.   This also is true of subtle attitudes about sex roles, about how men and women treat one another, what they expect of one another, how relationships end, and so on.  These attitudes may have more cumulative impact on your children than you realize now.  The attitudes, the tone, the implied judgments will be 'heard' much more than the content (e.g., the child may dismiss much of the content as somehow irrelevant because it's coming from Mom or Dad, or because  they think it's "ancient history" that doesn't apply to them.  I think of those cartoons where you here talking-type sounds but can't make out the words, or a conversation in another room that you can't quite hear:  the tone comes through even when the words do not.

Can we agree to one rule?  If you're talking about an ex-sweetheart, then please be sure you portray the father (or mother) of your children in the better light?  "I am so glad I met your father!"  Certainly don't have your children's parent portrayed as the lesser in the comparison, nor sound as though you have regrets about your spouse, or wistful thoughts of how it might have been better!

I do not believe a parent should talk about their own sexual relationships.  References to sexuality should be framed in the context of loving relationships, not callous sexual behavior, in the context of mutual sharing rather than self-centered need fulfillment, etc.  There are ways to talk about the thoughts and feelings involved in sexuality.  Be mindful of the developmental stage of your teens.  You want to validate the normal emotional struggles of teenage life.  You want them to know that they can  learn from their struggles.  It is better for them to be consciously aware and open about all the mixed feelings and contradictory thoughts, the impulses and fears, and the short term versus longer term concerns.  By validating their struggle, you can encourage their openness, encourage their being more mindful than impulsive, more sensitized than repressed ... Open to learning rather than repetition.

As parents we can gently impart our values while empathizing, and do it in a non-lecturing way.  Yes, we can say "I wish I knew then what I know now,"  and use it to convey understanding, empathy and encouragement (rather than condescension, judgment, or negativity).

Would you rather be a teenager in love, or a parent watching your teen go through it?  Is there a third option?