Summer Love: How to Handle your Kid’s First Crush

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If your kids are going to camp this summer, there’s a good chance they’ll experience their first crush. What should you say and do if that happens? How should you handle this new and unfamiliar situation? Here’s what the experts suggest:

Take their feelings seriously

The first and most basic thing to do is take your kids’ feelings seriously and be supportive of them. “As an adult, you know that many crushes don’t become actual relationships, but your [children don’t] feel that way or have that life experience yet,” says Dr. Sharon Saline, a clinical psychologist with more than 30 years of experience. So, let them pour their hearts out whether or not their feelings are reciprocated. You can also assure them, as Paul Chernyak, a licensed professional counselor and parenting coach, says, “that having a crush is totally normal and healthy.” This will help them avoid feeling awkward or embarrassed around their crush.

Ask open-ended questions

One gentle way to invite your kids to share their feelings is to ask them open-ended questions. Well-known child psychologist and media personality Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks recommends questions like “Tell me about Kate” or “How does John feel about you?” Whichever questions you ask, be enthusiastic about the responses. Dr. Sarah Radcliffe, another well-known child psychologist and author of “Raising Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice,” suggests parents respond by saying, “Wow, it sounds like you really like this person.” Simply put, there’s no reason to put a damper on your child’s enthusiasm.

Listen carefully

Listen carefully to what your kids choose to share with you. “My [No. 1] advice for parents when talking to their kids about love and loss is first to listen,” says Katie Austin, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in adolescents. Of course, this is much easier said than done. “So often as parents, we go into conversations with our kids with a preconceived agenda—‘I don’t want you to date them,’ ‘You’re better off without them’ ….” Austin says. “We listen to them with the intention of imposing or sharing our own agenda and really miss what they’re saying.” Instead of engaging in conversation on what you believe is best for them, listen to them so you can learn more about what they want to share and hear from you. The goal of your conversation, Dr. Saline says, should be to maintain open lines of communication and “listen to how they’re feeling and what
they’re thinking.”

Give them space to process their feelings

Talk to your kids and genuinely listen to them, but also give them space to process their feelings. “You may want to talk about your child’s crush every opportunity you have or supply them with tips on handling [it],” Chernyak says. “But you and your child will handle the crush better if you step back a bit and let your child experience [it].” Bring it up now and then, and ideally when your kids are making it clear that they’re willing and ready to talk about it.

Help them distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships

Use their crush as an opportunity to teach your kids how to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Dr. Saline suggests that parents discuss such healthy relationship qualities as caring, kindness, listening, respect and trust, and on the flipside, help their kids recognize unhealthy relationship qualities like
bullying, insults and manipulation.

Discuss and set proper relationship boundaries

If your kids’ feelings happen to be reciprocated, discuss and set proper boundaries for any relationship. Talk to your kids about what’s age-appropriate and set limits and guidelines, Chernyak says. This includes such important topics as whether and under what circumstances they can be alone with their crush and the proper displays of affection.

You also want to make sure that your kids don’t sacrifice all the other important people and activities in their lives—family, friends, hobbies, school work, etc.—for the sake of a relationship. “Set boundaries that don’t crush their spirit, but help them balance their social life and responsibilities,” says Jay Pigott, a licensed clinical social worker with expertise in adolescents. Dr. Saline adds that parents should also discuss the consequences of their kids not abiding by the agreed-upon terms. “Setting limits is important,” Dr. Saline says, but “enforcing those limits is just
as critical.”

Accept that your kids are growing up!

Finally, accept what’s really going on when your kids have a crush: they’re growing up! First crushes may not last, but that doesn’t make them any less educational. They represent, as Lynn Zakeri, a clinical social worker and therapist, puts it, “an opportunity to practice for future relationships and to have the hindsight reflection about what worked and what didn’t and how to improve for next time.”

Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences, and Disorders at the City University of New York—Brooklyn College.

About Tanni Haas

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