By Tanni Haas, Ph.D.
Whether your kids are going to camp this summer, joining you and the rest of the family on a vacation trip, or just hanging around the neighborhood with friends, chances are 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 is to take your kids’ feelings seriously and be supportive of them. “As an adult,” says Dr. Sharon Saline, a clinical psychologist with more than 30 years of experience, “you know that many crushes don’t become actual relationships, but your [children don’t] feel that way or have that life experience yet.” So, let them pour their hearts out whether or not their feelings are reciprocated by the object of their affection. You can also show support by assuring 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 not get embarrassed and feel awkward whenever they happen to be 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. Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a well-known child psychologist and media personality, advises parents to ask questions like “Tell me about Kate” or “How does John feel about you?” Whichever questions you ask, be enthusiastic about their responses. Dr. Sarah Radcliffe, another well-known child psychologist and author of Raising Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice, suggests that parents respond by saying “Wow, it sounds like you really like this person.’’ Simply put, there’s no reason to put a damper on their enthusiasm.
Listen carefully to what your kids choose to share with you. “My number one advice for parents when talking to their kids about love and loss,” says Katie Austin, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in adolescents, “is first to listen.” Of course, this is much easier said than done. “So often as parents,” Ms. Austin emphasizes, “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’ …. We listen to them with the intention of imposing or sharing our own agenda and really miss what they’re saying.” Instead of engaging your kids in conversation to get what you believe is best for them, listen to 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: You need to “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. As Mr. Chernyak puts it, “You may want to talk about your child’s crush every opportunity you have or supply them with tips on handling [it]. But you and your child will handle the crush better if you step back a bit and let your child experience [it].” Try not to ask them constantly about their crush. 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 the 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. Simply put, Mr. Chernyak says, “there should be guidelines and limits set on appropriate interactions.” 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,” says Jay Pigott, a licensed clinical social worker with expertise in adolescents, “but help them balance their social life and responsibilities.” 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 are having 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.”
About the Author:
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
Editor’s Note: This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and does not constitute medical or other professional advice.