Kids and Crushes

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When cupid’s arrow strikes, it can be fun and exciting, but for young children just learning how to navigate social interactions, crushes can also be intense, puzzling and disappointing. Early crushes start sooner than parents think, sometimes in preschool, and experts say they can lay the groundwork for a child’s future romantic relationships. Read on for age-appropriate tactics to help parents turn crushes into lessons about life and love.

Fast Focus
Does your child spend every waking minute talking about a special friend or favorite teacher? You’re in the crush zone. A child’s first “crush” may take the form of an intense interest in a new friend, preschool teacher, or another non-family adult. It’s normal for a young child to fixate on someone he likes, even declare that he wants to marry his friend or teacher. Use these statements as bridges to discussions about concepts like marriage, friendship, living together and love.

“Remember, children this age are still learning how to interact in social situations,” says Jenell Kelly, family and human development specialist at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro. Give your child simple instructions for expressing and receiving affection, being a good friend, and respecting others’ personal space to help them navigate strong feelings and budding friendships.

Sticks and Stones
It’s normal for grade-schoolers to develop crushes as they become more social and interact with a wider circle of friends and peers. Often, though, crushes appear anything but affectionate. Kids may show interest by targeting their crush for negative attention, from name-calling to schoolyard chasing. And most have no idea how to deflect unwanted attention from a peer with a crush on them.

It’s all part of learning about boundaries and group dynamics, says Kelly. “Getting along with peers — those they are interested in and those they may not be interested in — is an important component of normative development.” But kids should understand that healthy relationships don’t involve rough physical interactions, name-calling or other negative attention. Parents can help children interact positively with others by adopting a zero tolerance for bullying policy at home, and using games and role play to help children identify ways to express their interest in a positive way, like offering a compliment or striking up a conversation about music.

Dating Game
What’s the right age for teens to begin dating? There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, says Kelly. While some may go on first “dates”— possibly chaperoned trips to the mall or movies — around age 13, others may not date at all as teens. “Chronological age is not always the best way to determine when teens are ready to date,” she says. A child’s social and emotional maturity and a family’s value system should factor in, as well. If “real” dates are still a few years off, group dates, movie nights at home, or parent-chaperoned outings can help pave the way for more dating autonomy later on.

Before dating begins, start talking with teens about boundaries — things like responsibility, accountability, communication guidelines, dating curfews, how the family screens potential dates, and what to do if she feels uncomfortable on a date. “And before your teen dates, take him or her on a date!” says Carolyn AlRoy, a psychologist in New York City. Use the time to talk about healthy dating and appropriate behavior, and brainstorm fun date activities.

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.