Your Tween’s First Crush

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When she was in fifth grade, Andrea Martin started turning red. In her face that is, every time she saw a certain boy.

“He would walk by and her whole face would just flush,” recalls her mom Lisa, who happened to work in the school office. “He was all she talked about.”

Not every 11-year-old is as obvious as Andrea when they fall head-over-heels for the first time, and even fewer are so open with their parents. So how can you tell if your own child has fallen for someone, and more importantly, what – if anything – should you do about it?

The key, says Costa Mesa Marriage and Family Therapist Susan Kelsey, is to keep the lines of communication open and not over-react.

Talk about it

Kids mature at different rates, and it’s not uncommon for kids as young as elementary school-age to find themselves “crushing” on someone in a way that feels very real to them. A few tell-tales signs that your child might have started pursuing the opposite sex could be a sudden change in grooming habits, endless hours on the phone and constant text messaging. If those are familiar scenarios around your home, start by asking your child a few open-ended questions in a casual, curious manner.

Something like, “Where did you two meet?” or “What do you like about this person?” can be a good place to start, offers Kelsey.

“Try not to give the feeling that you’re prying,” she adds. “Just be interested.”

Of course, responding to a flood of information (or a draught) can be just as tricky. But no matter how much talking your child does, stay calm and listen up. Resist the urge to assume the worst or judge, cautions Kelsey, especially if you’re not sure exactly what your child is telling you. For example, if your child says they’re “going out” with someone, ask them what that means. Among the tween set these days, it could simply mean that other people know the pair like each other, but they never actually go anywhere, least of all out on a date.

A sincere comment such as, “Sounds like this person is really important to you” or “I can tell you’re really excited about this,” can go a long way toward making your child feel more comfortable confiding in you. Some kids may enjoy hearing about your own “first love” experience and find the details helpful, but try to gauge their interest before you take that walk down memory lane.

What not to say

Like any other emotional topic, it’s important to choose your words carefully when talking to your preteen about a serious crush. Unless you have reason to fear for your child’s safety, don’t urge her to break up or forbid her from seeing her new friend. Doing so puts your child’s trust in you at risk and may deter her from ever sharing such information with you again.

Another pitfall to avoid is belittling your child’s feelings by telling him they’re too young to understand what real love is. He’ll be more likely to believe that you are the one who doesn’t understand and clam up when it comes to talking about a crush in the future.

Like so many other emotional and physical changes that take place during the middle years, first love is a milestone that with understanding, clear limits and lots of parental supervision, every child can successfully navigate, says Kelsey.

For Andrea Martin, that first crush turned out to be a three-year ordeal that never materialized and finally fizzled out when she met someone else in the seventh grade. For Kelsey’s own daughter, a first love experience in the sixth grade ended almost as quickly as it began. Personally, my daughter has shared the details of other friends’ experiences, but hasn’t fallen hard for anyone herself yet. That’s fine with me, I’m content to wait for that milestone as long as it takes.

Household Rules for Romance

If you discover your preteen has a boyfriend or girlfriend, it’s important to establish rules, advises Kelsey. Here are a few suggestions:

• Don’t allow your child to be home alone with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

• When a special friend comes over, the door to the room where they hang out should always be open.

• Do you know the other child’s parents? Maybe you can talk and agree on rules for dating, group or solo, so that your child knows what to expect.

• Stay on top of your child’s computer activities. Preteens are impressionable, and even smart, popular, self-confident ones can think they’ve fallen in love online. Visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Kids at for its “Blog Beware” tip sheet for safe social networking practices.

Michelle Piazonni is a freelance writer and mother of three living in Northern California.