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Love's First Blush: A Guide for Parents

Hearts will be aflutter everywhere come Valentine's Day, but perhaps nowhere more than among the preteen set. Kids on the cusp of adolescence spend endless hours fantasizing and giggling, gossiping and blushing about their own and their friends' first crushes.

Take Hayley Alfonso, for instance  -- a 10-year-old from Minneapolis with a flourishing love life. She's "going with" her 10-year-old classmate, Alex, infatuated with the high school junior who lives across the street, and crazy about Leonardo DiCaprio.

Although it's easy to dismiss puppy love as insignificant  -- even silly  -- experts believe such early attractions teach kids important lessons about relationships.

YOUNG AT HEART

Cupid's arrow strikes at varying ages, depending on when kids reach puberty, peer influence (are their pals talking about who's cute?), and gender (girls typically become interested sooner).

Despite all the whispering, preadolescent romance is hardly hot and heavy. A child's object of desire is usually unattainable  -- perhaps a teacher, coach, or movie star. First relationships typically consist of occasional phone calls and meeting up in the school hallways and cafeteria.

LOVE 'N LEARN

But whether a girl is daydreaming about Prince William or a boy is actually spending time with a cute next-door neighbor, they're preparing for more serious liaisons later. "Crushes allow children to play with love, the same way preschoolers play house and come to understand family interactions," says Rachel Ritvo, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Rockville, MD. While they're rehearsing:

Don't worry. Even though preteens are inundated with sexual imagery from the media, their relationships almost never involve physical experimentation. But don't make too much of your child's growing interest either. Insinuating comments like "Ohhh, that's your boyfriend" can turn innocent affection into something deeper than it is, and propel kids into premature intimacy.

Avoid harsh restrictions. Prohibiting phone calls to a crush is unnecessary. Instead, limit them based on homework, chores, and the phone needs of other family members.

Don't tease. Making fun of a youngster's romantic interests will only cause him to clam up. If he confides in you, ask questions that show interest but aren't preachy ("What do you like about her?"), or tell him about someone you had a crush on as a preteen. Such conversations let you express your own values and expectations so that your budding romantic will have the skills and confidence to build healthy relationships as he grows.

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