When an adolescent falls in love there is nothing puppy about it. Adolescent relationships give teenagers an excellent opportunity to get in touch with and refine their relationship templates.

In 1960, when he was 19 years old, Paul Anka, who was then madly in love with actress and singer Annette Funicello, wrote the song ‘Puppy Love’ that went on to be a chartbuster, for it echoed the plaintive voices of millions of teenagers all over the world. I am positive if, almost half a century after it was originally written, one of the innumerable charming boy bands in existence today would care to do a cover of ‘Puppy Love’, they could hope to go platinum in India alone. For the lyrics of the song will still continue to resonate with the soul of the love-sick Indian teenager.

In-your-face

Teenage relationships have come into sharp conscious focus in the minds of contemporary urban parents. Not because they are of recent occurrence; it’s just that teenagers of yesteryears were more circumspect about their love-lives whereas today’s teenager is generally more in-your-face.

When faced with a teenager in love, parents typically react in one of three ways. The more ‘balanced-liberal’ parents are blasé about the whole thing and see what’s happening as a rite of passage and try and be as supportive as they reasonably can. ‘Quasi-liberal’ parents label it as ‘puppy love’ and get all gooey and gushy with their teenagers, pat them condescendingly on the heads when the teenager has a fight with the loved one and are genuinely surprised when their teenagers react angrily to this, insisting they are not puppies, demanding to be taken more seriously and even threatening elopement and the like. The more ‘conservative’ parents press the panic button, advise the teenagers that they are too young to get married, cut off their privileges and seek a meeting with the parents of the teenager’s sweetheart, with whom they work out a strategy to sabotage the relationship and end up utterly humiliating both the girl and the boy and alienating themselves from their teenage child.

To prevent over-the top reactions and respond appropriately to the needs of one’s teenager, one needs to understand the phenomenon of teenage love and recognise its value in the process of human growth and development. First off, we need to realise that when a teenager falls in love, there is nothing puppy about it. I am still to meet a puppy who thinks and behaves in the same manner as a teenager does when in love. There is, in fact, absolutely no difference in the feelings experienced by the teenager as well as the chemical changes in the brain when compared to the adult in love. The very heady feeling of being in love takes over their life and leaves room for little else. Academic pursuits becomes second priority (unless the object of love is an academic genius), friends are neglected and parents become drones. So dismissing this as ‘puppy love’ is bound to rouse the teenager’s ire.

Necessary element

You may ask me, is the teenager mature enough for a love relationship? And my answer will have to be yes and no. Yes, the teenager is ready to fall in love, physiologically and psychologically. But no, the teenager is not yet mature enough to make a commitment to a long-term relationship. While love is a necessary element in all relationships, merely being in love does not mean that one can necessarily have a good relationship. Other parameters are important for the conduct of a relationship, and some of these are not yet part of the teenager’s repertoire.

Which is precisely why many teenage relationships end sooner than later, except in the case of extraordinarily mature teenagers. But what is important to understand is that adolescent relationships give teenagers an excellent opportunity to get in touch with and refine their relationship templates which will be invaluable in the conduct of their adult relationships. Teenagers who don’t fall in love (many such teenagers exist, though they’re dwindling in number) need not worry; they can figure out how to have relationships when they’re adults or from the behaviour of their ‘love-sick’ compatriots.

So next time, your teenager is mooning around the house or having long and intense telephone conversations with a ‘friend’, try and understand that this is a necessary stage in a teenager’s life and unless you are confided in, you cannot really play a role in what is happening. But if you do have an open relationship with your teenager, it’s quite probable that you will hear some, if not all, of the gory details and will be expected to provide inputs and guidance. If this is the case, try not be condescending.

The best guidance you could provide is to help ensure that the teenager does not feel compelled to make a commitment to the partner, does not feel compelled to engage in a sexual relationship when not ready to do so, and does not get overly distracted from the primary purpose of going to school or college. And whatever you do, don’t ever forget that, as Paul Anka said, this is not a puppy love.

The writer is a Chennai-based psychiatrist and author. He can be contacted at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com