Early elementary-school crushes are sweet and silly and not often reciprocated, so they go nowhere. A kids’ social life shifts by middle school, however, when tweens hit puberty. Your tween or teen’s first crush can become seemingly all they think about, and might even turn into a real couple situation. How do you, the parent, handle the drama?
Do you pretend you don’t hear your kid giggling to their friends about a guy or gal? Turn a blind eye when your googly-eyed child starts literally acting like a different person? Do you try to casually ask them how it’s going?
“The feelings of a crush are very new and sensitive and exciting,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist with her own practice in Princeton, New Jersey, and the author of Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem. “Sometimes this all takes parents by surprise. But it’s just a sign that your child is growing up and testing the waters.”
How much you hear about it depends on the kid. “Some kids will happily bring you along for every little up and down. Others want to work it out on their own, and I think that that's absolutely okay. So follow your child's lead,” Kennedy-Moore says. I have two kids, and one needed to talk about crushes while one would have rather run away from home than have me mention such a thing. Each was tough for me in its own way.
It’s Obvious. A Crush Is Happening. Do You Name It?
I do think parenting through a crush is easier if your child just says, “I want so-and-so to go out with me.” Then it’s out there, and you can talk about that feeling of being in love (not that I did, I was too chicken) and ask questions (which I definitely did). Here’s what I asked: “Do you think they like you, too? Where do they live? Who are their parents again? What do your friends think?”
Here is what Dr. Kennedy-Moore said I should have done: Not act like I was getting a new in-law. “Be careful that you are not more interested in the crush than they are,” she cautions. “You want this to be theirs and don’t want to add any pressure.” Oops.
“With most first crushes, the kids are not wanting an actual relationship,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore explained. It’s mostly a fantasy, although based in real life, versus the crush a kid might have on a celebrity. “They just want to gaze from afar and imagine. So they need no problem-solving from us,” she says. Roger that, if a couple years too late.
The Crush Is In Full Force. Your Kid Is Enlisting Your Help. How Much Do You Step In?
My firstborn wanted me to take them shopping to buy the object of their affection a holiday gift, which quickly turned from charming to annoying. I tried to be patient while they fretted about whether the knit cap they picked out was good enough. As a parent, it’s hard to not snap and say something like, “If this hat is a dealbreaker, then this whole relationship is on thin ice” or some other snarky thing.
There’s no use pointing out to your child that they’re behaving ridiculously. After all, we did the same back in our day. “They have to figure it out on their own,” Kennedy-Moore says. “It would be so nice to just explain things to your child rather than them having to go through the hard knocks.” But the lavender haze of a first crush is theirs to experience and learn from.
My son was a very different creature with his crush. He tried to be stealth, so when he occasionally needed my assistance, he hated it. You need a stamp to mail her a letter over the summer? You want to take her to a concert? I was careful to never say the word “girlfriend” but I think just the change in the tenor of my voice when I verified his requests made him furious. I was happy to help but also felt like I was walking on eggshells.
My son’s first crush ended before things ever really took off. (“There’s a reason that kids celebrate their one-month anniversary,” laughs Kennedy-Moore.) I have friends, though, whose kid’s high-school crushes got serious. At 16 their “baby” was asking if a sig other could sleep over. If things reach this stage, obviously you are getting involved. You need contraceptive plans, plus boundaries and rules all over the place. Living under the same roof as a full-fledged teen relationship is a whole other story for another time.
Crushes Go One Way — Or Another
Both of my kids’ first crushes ended with the blunt-edged force that can come with first breakups. No one is mature in middle school, or in high school for that matter.
I regret trying to help my firstborn end things not with their first crush (that was mutual) but with someone who was crushing on them, a few years before. I was asked to review the “we will never be together” texts but when I made suggestions or offered ways to soften things, I was ignored.
“Kids don’t listen to their parents,” my mom-friend reminds me. But we can repeat this mantra that she employs, and that Dr. Kennedy-Moore recommends. Tell kids: “You don’t have to like someone, but you do have to be kind to them.” It will sink through and at least be helpful when they’re older.
After the end of the run of the crush, it’s enough for you, as the parent, to be physically present, Kennedy-Moore says. Pull up a movie, or suggest an outing. Your kid may not want to go over any of the details of their finished “relationship” out loud but might consent to a hug, and could appreciate some distraction.
When Do We Get To Share Our Own Words Of Wisdom?
Kids really do like to hear about their parents’ high-school dating adventures. Just not, you know, in some pointed conversation that also includes you judging their own crush. Just let them know that you survived heartache and heartbreak and see if you can have some laughs about it.
“One strategy is to make relationship talks about other people. Then it’s not as personal,” Kennedy-Moore says. “Ask something like, ‘How common is it for kids in your grade to have a boyfriend or girlfriend? What do you notice about the relationships? Do people get teased for liking someone, or no?” Do kids behave differently when they’re trying to get someone’s attention? Let them talk about what other kids are doing.
Acknowledge the dilemmas that come when classmates pair off. It can be hard on a group of friends when one friend gets a significant other. “Ask, ‘How would you describe a healthy relationship?’ and see what they say,” Kennedy-Moore says. “It’s a lot less threatening than asking, ‘Why do you like that person?’”
Indirect hits for the win!