Your child's first crush

February 10, 2010 4:23:27 PM PST
Parenting advice: How to handle your child's first crush.

"Mom, I'm in Love"
First crushes are a necessary - and sometimes messy - part of growing up. Here are some things to keep in mind when your child gets hit with Cupid's arrow.

Talk early: While children typically reach puberty at age 11 (for girls) and age 13 (for boys), more children are entering puberty at younger ages - some as young as 8 - creating an entirely different set of challenges.

Don't Call it Puppy Love
A crush is NOT insignificant, and parents shouldn't treat it as such. Experts claim that early crushes can set the stage for later relationship patterns. Often girls in particular internalize their negative thoughts and feelings about themselves as "fact" when in reality, relationship difficulties may be due to many things: a difference in the level of maturity and social awareness between girls and boys at this age, poor communication and problem solving skills, or myriad other factors.

Have age-appropriate conversations about sex and dating throughout a child's life. Experts suggest that one way of doing this is to notice and comment on changes in siblings, cousins, friends or neighbors that the child might know. Talking about these changes in a once-removed way may help both parties to feel more comfortable.

Keep it Simple
While most adults want to sit down for a 20 minute conversation when they talk with their kids, but experts suggest about four separate five-minute conversations. Questions should get peppered over time and should not be done judgmentally: What's it like to feel this way? What are you learning about yourself when you're together? What do you think they like most about you? Also, talk with your child in a side-by-side context: Take a walk or a drive in a car.

Let's get Digital: Today's parents must learn about texting, social networking and other technology to keep up with their kids. Many young relationships become too intimate too soon because of the "safeness" of talking via text rather than face-to-face. Plus, kids will text at all hours of the day and night.

To circumvent problems, put computers in public areas and have a common area for cell phones at night. Enforce not texting rules when you deem it prudent.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do
While younger children may weather a so-called break-up like a stubbed toe, older tweens and teens can be shattered. They suffer from rejection or guilt, depending on if they instigated the break-up. Treat break-ups as a real physical ailment for the teen. Give them lots of coddling and support. At the same time, look for significant changes in your child's mood, energy levels, sleep patterns, peer group, weight, and usual activities.

Look out for unhealthy relationships
Some of the indications of a bad relationship is sending or receiving multiple calls/texts/IMs/emails to or from the same person; poorer performance in school; not as involved with friends, sports or clubs.

What to say: Experts suggest that parents tread softly around a potentially bad relationship. Rather than saying.

"She's bad for you," say "Since you've been dating her you've changed a lot" and follow it up by explaining what you've observed (e.g. not as involved in sports, grades going down, or not hanging out with many friends). And if they seem to come to the same conclusion sooner or later, NEVER say "I told you so."

About Peggy Spear:

Peggy Spear is editor of Bay Area Parent magazine, the most widely read local parenting magazine in northern California. It covers issues of childrearing, from pre-birth all the way to age 18. A mother of three, Peggy draws on her own experience to guide the award-winning magazine.

Peggy came to Bay Area Parent in 2006 from the Contra Costa Times, where she served as a parenting and family writer, and then an assistant metro editor.

She lives in Walnut Creek with her husband, Tony, and her kids Francesca, 18, Charlie 16 and Mick, 12.