A five-year-old Richmond, Virginia, boy came home from his first day of kindergarten and announced, “Mommy, I just wanted to tell you, I found the girl I am going to marry.” Childhood crushes are common among school-aged kids. Parents are sometimes at a loss when it comes to knowing what to do when they discover their child experiences their first crush.
Discovering a child’s crush might cause panic. In some homes, it wasn’t long ago that their young one insisted they were going to marry the family dog. But, similar to how kids become attached to, and adore the family pet, they can form emotional attachments to their peers or a teacher. It’s important to keep in mind that these aren’t hormone-driven infatuations like those teenagers experience. The exchange of hugs, love notes, simple gifts, or an innocent kiss are a child’s way to say, “I like you a lot!” But, love it is not.
The kindergartener’s mother curiously asked her son to tell her about the girl who had caught her eye. He said she was pretty, wore shoes that sparkled, and carried a purple book bag. He thought a mom should know when her son had found a wife. His mom cautioned him about moving too fast, and to not mention anything about marriage or love. She encouraged him to work at being her friend, and worry about the other stuff later.
A week later, the boy announced he and the girl wouldn’t be getting married. He’d waited that long to tell the girl about his marriage plans. Then the girl had told him that she already had a boyfriend. He was disappointed. But, Mom and son talked it over, and he decided he could still be her friend.
If your child is giving you hints that he or she has a crush, consider these tips for helping your child learn and grow from the experience:
1) Be Curious
You’ll be in a better position to help you child if you avoid jumping to conclusions. If you come to the wrong conclusions, they may clam up. Open a dialog with your child by expressing curiosity about things you’ve noticed in their behavior.
You may notice that your child is talking more about a child of the opposite sex than they do about their other friends. The other child’s name might be inscribed across the pages of a notebook, or painted with colorful ink on their arm. You might find love notes in their pocket or backpack. Your child might ask for cell phone, or be sending texts or emails, or getting messages from a child you don’t know. If your child’s interest is in a teacher, they may be more eager to get to school, or talk at length about their teacher when they get home.
As you see changes in your child’s behavior that may indicate a new kind of friendship is developing, ask questions. Let your child talk at a pace their comfortable with. Resist the impulse to squeeze details out of them. Share with your child the clues you’ve noticed. You may say something like, “I noticed your face lights up when you talk about him. What’s he like?” Draw out more information before assuming there’s a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” When all the evidence points in that direction, then you may ask if your child thinks of this person as a boyfriend or girlfriend. If your hunch is confirmed, then you may ask what having this boyfriend or girlfriend means, whether they have similar feelings, and what they like to do together.
Be careful not to chuckle at what your child says, or dismiss their feelings. The point of being curious is to gather as much information as you can, taking as much time as necessary for your child to trust you with the information. The wrong reaction could sever the lines of communication on this subject.
2) Provide Guidance
Once you’ve taken time to understand the nature of your child’s crush and what it means to them, you’re in a better position to provide guidance. Guidance given too soon is like giving driving directions to someone before they tell you where they want to go. Unless you see your child being taken advantage of by someone who lies, cheats, steals, or puts your child in danger, avoid bombarding them with advice, directions ore restrictions on the relationship. Check with them a few times a week on how their relationship is going, and invite your child come to you with any concerns and problems.
When helping a child cope with relationship concerns or problems, the best guidance a parent can give is to share stories from their own experience, and the lessons learned. Remember to keep your guidance age-appropriate. Think back to your first childhood crush. Mine was on Miss Cole, my second-grade teacher. Keep in mind, your child’s crush is not sexual desire—it is an admiration for someone who makes them feel special. It might have been the way they smiled or spoke to your child—that’s what happened with Miss Cole. Maybe they held your child’s hand, or gave them a gift. This is an opportunity to teach your child how to act when they’re struggling in a relationship with someone who is special to them.
As your child shares things they like and don’t like about the person they have a crush on, this is a good time to teach them about what qualities to look for in a friend, what makes a person trustworthy, and how to respond to behavior your child doesn’t like.
If your child’s crush is on someone who isn’t reciprocating, you might be able to tell them about a time that happened to you. Tell them, it’s okay for that person to not want to be their girlfriend or boyfriend.
If your child comes to feel like their special relationship is no longer working and can’t be repaired, guide them on how to respectfully break it off.
3) Protect Your Child
If your child is being exploited by someone who lies, cheats, steals, or puts them in danger, you need to set up boundaries that protect your child. When doing this, explain what you’re doing in terms they can understand. Forbidding your child to see or talk to another person without explaining why will cause them to lose trust in you.
It’s also important to not leave young children unsupervised. The ease with which movies and videos with sexual content can get into homes makes it more likely that kids will be exposed to images their minds aren’t able to handle appropriately. Kids mimic what they see. When left without supervision by responsible adults, they may become the victim of another child’s violent or sexual role play.
4) Be Sympathetic
When your child’s crush turns into a crushing experience, don’t brush it off. A child’s lack of experience with negative emotions can make it difficult for them to know what to do. There may be a fear that the feelings will never go away, or they may feel physically sick.
Ask your child about their feelings. Help them put their feelings into words. It’s likely they won’t know what labels to put on their emotions. A parent can help with this. Tell then about a time when you felt similar feelings, how you used positive coping skills, and how the negative feelings healed and stopped hurting over time.
If this post was helpful to you, please share it. What other tips would you offer to a parent whose child has their first crush? Add to the list with a comment below.
A version of this post also appeared on LifeZette.com.