How to Handle Your Child's First Crush
"Dear My Little Yoni,
I recently asked my second-grade son about crushes in his class. He told me about a few of his classmate crushes, including his own, and he also made it clear that there were some he couldn’t tell me about because he had been sworn to secrecy. I respected his secrets and didn’t push any harder.
Although he seemed happy and at ease throughout our conversation, I wondered if I was asking too many questions. Was I crossing any boundaries or invading the private space of childhood crushes?
I feel you and all the curious grown-ups out there! The experts say No. You're not invading the private space of your son's childhood crushes. Crushes are important, long-ignored milestones in the relational life of preadolescent children that parents and caregivers should respectfully discuss and unpack with them.
These early infatuations help children explore romantic feelings before they are ready for romantic relationships. Through them, they learn to cope with some of the more challenging parts of being attracted to another.
When Does a Kid's First Crush Happen?
Experts say that kids commonly have their first crush when they're 5 or 6. "Younger children focus their love on their family," explains Cynthia Langtiw, Psy.D., assistant professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
But, as kids enter kindergarten or first grade, they feel affection for their classmates too because they're spending more time in school and activities outside their families.
Many psychologists regard crushes as a milestone in the developmental years; that's because they teach kids about attraction, privacy, and more.
The Value of Childhood Crushes
A crush is in its category of relationships, separate from friendship or dating. Sometimes crushes are for people we know, and other times they are for fictional characters. Often, even if we know the object of our desire, the crush makes us idealize them, and it’s often the idealized version of that person we can’t get out of our head, rather than the living, breathing, flawed person.
The experience of having a crush can begin as early as preschool, and crushes can continue to occur throughout one’s life. Usually, these crushes are one-way, though sometimes they are reciprocated.
“These kids have emerging romantic ideas and emerging romantic feelings but are not ready to translate them into romantic behaviors or relationships,” said Julie Bowker, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo in New York, adding that crushes generally aren’t sexual or about dating in elementary school.
Emerging, however, doesn’t mean lacking in intensity. The feelings are real, and kids can use their parents’ help in understanding them and learning what to do with them. It begins with parents taking their kids’ feelings seriously.
“There is a strong emotional component there, and for some kids, it is hard to know what to do with those strong emotions,” said Catherine Bagwell, professor of psychology at Oxford College of Emory University in Georgia.
Chat about childhood crushes casually.
Some parents avoid talking about crushes altogether, while others are tempted to squeeze out every last detail.
The best tactic: Don't push, but start with general questions and follow your child's lead. For instance, if your son says he has a girlfriend, ask what that means to him. His response may range from, "She's my best friend" to "We got married during recess."
How can you find out what's going on if they don't bring up the topic?
You might say, 'I noticed that you've been hanging out with Thea lately. Do you feel different when you're around her?" Try not to chuckle at what your child says or dismiss their feelings. You want them to feel comfortable opening up to you!
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Determine if the crush is mutual.
Suppose your child likes someone in their class. After you explore what they're going through, ask whether they think their crush feels the same about them.
If the answer is no, explain that it's important to respect the other person's feelings. You can say something like, "I know you like Thea, but you shouldn't try to make her like you, because she might feel uncomfortable and that's not how real friends treat each other."
By the same token, if a person has a crush on your child but they don't share the feelings, let your child know that it's OK not to want to be their girlfriend or boyfriend.
While childhood crushes rarely amount to more than writing notes or hanging out at recess, some kids may want to hold hands or kiss on the cheek. Experts generally agree that these physical behaviors have nothing to do with sexuality at this age.
Kids are just starting on a path of putting together the ideas of love, physical feelings, and connection. But, it's a smart idea to talk about boundaries. "You can tell your child that it's OK to play together at school but not to kiss."
Healing hurt feelings.
Early infatuations usually don't last long—and most kids get over them quickly. However, your child may be hurt if a classmate/friend doesn't like them back. Ask your child how they feel about it. Then, point out all their great qualities and the other friends they have. It's also helpful to mention some of your experiences from childhood, so your child realizes that what they're going through is perfectly normal.
Let your child explore their feelings by themselves and be there to guide them and support them in their decisions along the way. You got this!