Parents, Your Millennial Kid Wants to Talk With You about Love

A new report confirms what my students have been telling me for years—millennials want to talk with their parents about love! A team of researchers at Harvard University gathered data about the love lives of over 3,000 young adults (ages 18 to 25-year-olds) and found:

  • 65% of these young adults wished that they had received guidance on the emotional aspects of romantic relationships in school.
  • 70% of these young adults wished their parents had talked with them about the emotional aspects of a romantic relationship.

The first finding is no surprise to me. The course I teach at Northwestern University, Building Loving and Lasting Relationships: Marriage 101, is the most highly sought after course on campus. It has received media attention on five continents, and over the years, we have shared elements of the curriculum with interested faculty around the country in the hopes that every young adult can have access to this kind of wholehearted relationship education.

The second finding resonates deeply with the experiences I have had working with young adults and with the parents of young adults. When I do workshops with parents, we explore:

  • what makes it difficult to talk with their kids about sex, love, and intimate relationships
  • why it’s vitally important that they do
  • how to get those conversations started.

Much of my perspective on this topic of “inter-generational love dialogs” is shaped by the fact that all of my students, graduate and undergraduate, write a Love Template Interview Paper in the courses I teach. For this assignment, my students talk with their attachment figures (usually their parents), asking questions about their experiences with love, romantic relationships, and yes, sometimes even sex, in order to make explicit all of the implicit lessons that my students, like all of us, learned as they were growing up. I have read hundreds of Love Template Interview Papers, and here is the bottom line: talking to your young adult about love is one of the most important gifts you can give them.

Your kid has been a “student” in the “classroom” of your home since the day they were born, absorbing your lessons about love simply by being there, observing you and feeling you, every day. To be sure, you were not the only one shaping their views on love. Their teachers in school, their coaches, their religious leaders, their peer group, and the media all taught them about romantic relationships as well. But, right here right now, you are well-positioned to help your young adult sift through all of the messages they are carrying about love so that they can distill the truth of who they want to be in the love stories they are now creating for themselves.

If this kind of conversation feels difficult for you, here are some things to keep in mind as you open the door to a new kind of conversation:

  • It is your kid’s job (not yours) to figure out what they learned from you. Just like it is your job to figure out what you learned about love from your parents… and on and on up the family tree we go! What is your job? Your job is just to show up with a willingness to engage with them, soul to soul. Your job is to give them curious, open, and nonjudgmental time and space with you so they can wrestle with what they believe about love and why they believe it. Your young adult must figure what patterns/beliefs/attitudes/behaviors they want to carry forward into their own love lives and the patterns/beliefs/attitudes/behaviors they want to leave behind.
  • Don’t waste your time feeling guilty about what they learned or didn’t learn from you. As parents, we do the best we can with the tools we have at the time we have them. Your kids will learn as much (if not more) from the stuff that you have labeled as your “mistakes” as they will learn from the stuff you have labeled as your “successes.” Ultimately, it isn’t even your business what your kids learn from you. Your business is to stand in the truth of your story, warts and all, knowing there is no such thing as perfection and that love is messy. Your willingness to be authentic—confused, imperfect, and trying hard—will give your kid permission to do the same in their own love lives. That’s the best we can ever do anyways!
  • Don’t give advice. Focus instead on deep listening, reflecting back what you heard, and offering empathy. There are two reasons why this is your best course of action: #1. Parenting a young adult means accepting a change in role from boss to consultant. Conversations about love are a great arena in which you can practice your new role. #2. When it comes to love, there is very little that is black and white, and there is a tremendous amount that is shades of gray. At the end of the day, you really don’t know what is “right” for your young adult’s love life, but your humble and curious presence will help them distill their own truths. You can share your observations, your concerns, and your hopes. You can share your own experiences, but remember that you are on your journey and your adult child is on their journey.
  • If you must give advice, ask first if he or she is open to some feedback. This shows that you respect the boundary between the two of you.
  • Speak from LOVE not FEAR. So often when we talk to our kids about relationships, all we talk about is sex. And so often when we talk about sex, all we talk about is what can go wrong (sexual assault, STIs, unintended pregnancy, porn addiction, etc.). These conversations are important but they are fear-based. Find a way to talk to your kids from a place of love, hope, and optimism about all of what is possible when it comes to romantic relationships.
  • Keep doing your own work. Your love story is continuing to unfold and that is true whether you are in year 30 of your marriage or newly divorced. Your own commitment to loving bravely will model the same for your young adult. Toward that end, what would help you feel more comfortable talking about love with your young adult? Do you need to read books about relationships in order to broaden your own knowledge base? Do you need to start therapy (individual or couple) in order to feel more at peace with your experiences?
  • Don’t try to do it all at once. My students often come back and tell me that the Love Template Interview Paper was the first of a series of conversations. Especially if talking about relationships is new for your family, go slow. Take the pressure off of yourself and your kid. Let this be an unfolding over time.

Are you feeling ready? If you feel unsure about that first step, I suggest that you start with a joint platform. For example:

  • Read the report from Harvard and explore your thoughts and reflections.
  • Read a book. In my courses, we use my new book, Loving Bravely: 20 Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want, and many of my students found it helpful to send their parents a copy of the book. This helped everyone get on the same page… so to speak.
  • Use questions from the Love Template Interview Paper. Tomorrow I’ll publish some of the questions that our students use.

So, parent of a millennial, you’ve got this! Let curiosity be your guide as you and your young adult talk together about the complexities of romantic relationships. Your willingness to engage, even if you feel uncomfortable, will help them make choices for themselves that are wise and healthy.


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