At various times throughout the year, the top Google search is the query, “What is love?” In fact, it was the top search of 2012.
Love. It’s the one concept that seems to defy all barriers of life – whether of culture, religion, socioeconomic status, or age. From the moment an infant crowns and the mother releases oxytocin (often called the “love hormone”), that infant craves the connection with, the safety of, and the attachment to his or her mother. That crave for love never goes away. In fact, it gets stronger during the teenage years.
This week, I had several teen and young adult clients discuss topics relating to love in their counseling session. (Odd week for such a theme – I mean, it’s early November – not mid February.) Here’s an overview of some of the contexts in which the concept of love came up:
- A 16-year-old girl stated, “I know I love [boyfriend’s name]. I mean, I would die for him. My parents say that I’m too young to love a guy. They tell me not to talk about guys to them until I’m at least 18.”
- A 21-year-old guy with Asperger’s syndrome stated, “I’m jealous of normal people who can love. I think I just need to accept the fact that because of my Asperger’s, I’ll never be able to love.”
- An 18-year-old guy stated, “I’m attracted to guys. I just am. I know it’s not right and I’ve tried to change it for a year, but I don’t think I’ll ever love a girl.”
- A 14-year-old girl stated, “I think I’m in love with my thoughts [referring to the thoughts that lead her to restrict food from herself and cut her skin]. When I try getting out of the relationship with these thoughts, I feel like I’m leaving such a comfort zone.”
- A newlywed 25-year-old woman stated, “I question whether or not I should have married him. Nobody has ever treated me so horribly. I don’t even know if I love him.”
- A 19-year-old girl adopted at birth and living a lifestyle involving gangs and drugs stated, “I’m not sure if I’ve ever loved anybody – not even my parents… I wonder if having sex when I was little has messed me up.”
Love. Something parents tell their 16-year-old not to feel or talk about. Love. A concept that a 14-year-old associates with her self-destructive thoughts. Love. Something an 18-year-old associates with homosexual attraction. What is this thing called love?
Philosophers, poets, theologians, and psychologists have discussed this for centuries. The Bible gives several definitions of (and four different Greek words for) love – the most popular description being found in I Corinthians 13. What should a youth pastor, a counselor, a mentor, or a parent do when a teen approaches them with this topic? In short, here are three steps:
- Listen. The Bible tells us over 1,500 times to listen! It has been said that about 70% of counseling is listening. Don’t tell teens that they can’t be in love, and certainly don’t tell them not to talk about it. They will talk about it, and it won’t be to you if you turn them down the first time.
- Ask genuine questions. Let them know that you value their opinion and that you want to hear about their experience. Ask questions to distinguish between attraction, experience, orientation, and identity. Perhaps there is trauma in their past (if so, perhaps you can guide them to a therapist who can help them heal from their trauma). Ask questions about Scriptures relating to love and relationships. Ask questions about their experience with relationships. Ask them what they think love is and then validate parts of their ideas that have merit.
- Pray with them and for them. Ask them what you can pray about, specifically. Determine together what you will be praying about for the week and then follow up with them the next week. Ask them what they experienced in prayer that week and let them know what you experienced in prayer that week.
Timothy Keller said this about love, and I think it applies well to how we should approach difficult conversations with teens:
“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”
How will you demonstrate love to a teen today?
-Karissa J. King
 Keller, T. (2012). The meaning of marriage: Facing the complexities of commitment with the wisdom of God. New York: Penguin Publishing.