Dealing with your child’s first crush

So your kid has her first crush? Once you come to grips with the fact that forming attachments beyond the nest is actually healthy for your child and not a rejection of you-or the inevitably scary, slippery slope toward early sexual relationships you imagine it might be-then you can support her as she tiptoes into this new territory.

Tips for parents

• Don’t push children to form romantic attachments before
they’re ready.

• Cultivate good rapport with your child so that when she needs
to talk, it feels natural.

• Unless there’s risk of injury, it’s OK for kids to keep some
things private.

• Model what love means in your own relationships.

But how?

For starters, resist the temptation to tease, criticize or otherwise dismiss her feelings as “puppy love.” What she’s experiencing is as valid and real to her as any of your feelings are to you.

Instead, use this time as an opportunity to help her begin to discover what’s really important to her in a partner (for younger children, simply use the word “friend”). For example, when she mentions the object of her affections, ask her what he’s like. How does he treat others? What does he like to do with his free time? What makes him so interesting? Avoid overwhelming her with these questions all at once.

Follow her lead when she’s ready to share. When she is, ask her what she means by certain words when she uses them. For example, what is a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”? What does she mean by “love”?

Some children aren’t inclined to volunteer their feelings. You might get the discussion ball rolling by casually inquiring-while you empty the dishwasher or walk the dog together-about how things are going with her other friends first. For example, “How are things with Erin? With Rachel? And what about Tommy, what’s he up to these days?”

By the way, just because you’re playing it cool and not freaking out about your kid’s blossoming social life doesn’t mean you’re relieved of the need to set limits. This means, for example, no hanging out in the bedroom with guests behind closed doors and no access to phones or Web-enabled devices after bedtime. I’m absolutely rigid about this one, folks. Think it’s unnecessary to set limits when your kids are 10 and just barely feeling the stirrings of a first crush? OK, then try setting limits a few years later when the pull to stay up all night texting, chatting and Skyping becomes irresistible. It happens. It’s not pretty.

When young love ends, as it so often does, resist the urge to dismiss your child’s grief. I think we parents unwittingly do this because it’s tough to watch our children suffer a loss, especially when we know that these early relationships typically don’t last forever. While I don’t relish the prospect, I’d rather my children experience loss while still living at home, where I can help them sort out their feelings.

Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.

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