Oh, how cute.” That’s what crossed my mind when a boy from summer camp called and asked my oldest daughter, who was in fourth grade at the time, to go to the movies. (She said “No!” then ran from the phone.) But as I witnessed, a first crush - whether it’s initiated by your child or she’s on the receiving end of the romantic attention – can be anything but adorable from her perspective.
“Crushes are serious,” says Julia Simens, a family therapist. Like me, Simens knows from experience. When her son Grant was 11, he wrote a children’s book, “Spirit of Saint Valentine: An Expat’s Tale of Love,” which is about love in an international elementary school. “I hadn’t given crushes much thought until Grant opened my eyes to how important they are from a kid’s point of view,” Simens admits.
The fact is that Cupid’s arrow can aim low, striking kids as early as seven or eight. And though it’s easy to trivialize this experience, a child’s emotions are just as real as the fervor we might experience when adults find love. “Kids can fall in love by all developmental measures as soon as you can begin to measure their feelings,” says Carleton Kendrick, EdM, a family therapist and author of “Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We’re Going to Grandma’s.” “There’s no such thing as puppy love.”
Crushes are a healthy part of life. Besides being good practice for the future, they can teach kids a lot about relationships and about themselves. On the other hand, they can also be a source of pain and be difficult for your child to handle, especially into the pre-teen and teen years.
“When the hormones kick in, kids have more of a physical response to a crush and that can be confusing. They’ve already got so much going on emotionally, from trying to figure out their identity to how to fit in socially, academically and within the family,” says Stephanie Haen, a licensed clinical social worker.
Though you may not always need to get involved, there are things you can do, and things you shouldn’t, to help your child deal with love’s first blush. After counseling hundreds of parents on this issue, our experts weigh-in on the dos and don’ts of managing this tender milestone.
* Have talks, but not “the talk.” Help your elementary-age child prepare to deal with a crush, which is a distant cousin to dating, by having an ongoing dialogue about being respectful of her own body and herself from a young age and in a way she can understand. Then, as your child ages into the pre-teen and teen years, keep talking. These days, pre-teens and teens can put pressure on each other to add sexual exploration to the equation under the misguided notion that if they don’t have sex with their crush, it’s not really love.
“This is a big change from what it used to be like with kids 10 or 15 years ago,” says Kendrick, who has been in practice for 30 years. So be aware of what’s going on, and acknowledge it with your child.