Feb 5, 2011

Puppy Love: Preteens and Crushes

Madeline Gerris, of Westfield NJ, initially noticed her son’s first crush when he started talking about the same girl all the time. “By mid year (of 5th grade), the kids were telling him that his crush liked him. He admitted liking her and that was the extent of the crush.” ┬áKathy Arky, from West Hartford CT, noticed that her daughter was texting more than usual, took a real interest in how she looked and was consistently in a good mood. “These are pretty good signs that love is in the air,” says Kathy.

What to Expect

Having a crush in late elementary school and early middle school is one of the cornerstones of growing up. Before we can see the physical changes of adolescence, preteens experience a rise in hormones resulting in romantic feelings. “The first phase of a crush is really a visceral attraction that involves a lot of fantasy,” explains Sari Cooper, a NYC Family Therapist. “The next phase is the evolution from fantasy to friendship. Throughout both these phases kids are becoming aware of who they are attracted to. It is important for parents to support those wonderful feelings,” advises Sari.

Preteen girls are usually much more interested in becoming a “couple” than boys. “There were girls calling my son in 5th grade,” remembers Madeline. For girls at this age, a major topic of conversation is their crush. Boys may think that having a “girlfriend” is cool, but are just as interested in talking about sports with their friends. If boys do have a crush, they are more inclined to suffer in silence. Madeline adds, “Boys usually keep it very quiet from everyone in school except their closest friends. Girls have no problem telling everyone that they like someone.”

Technology

Texting and IMing have replaced passing notes and talking on the phone. “Technology makes the crush experience very different from our experiences since our kids never have to make a phone call,” says Madeline. A major difference for preteens today is that not only do they “date” by texting, but they also break up this way. Kathy laments the lack of face-to-face time. “I feel that talking in person is very important. When you read an email or text you don’t get any cues – does your friend feel bad, are they mad?”

As well as being concerned about communication, parents worry about monitoring their kid’s activities. “I think it is a little scary for parents because it is much easier for kids to hide things when they are texting or emailing,” says Madeline. Kathy says that on occasion she will check her daughter’s texts to make sure that they are appropriate. In the age of technology, it is important for parents to be linked into their child’s cyber world. “Knowing your kid’s passwords is part of being a responsible parent,” explains Sari Cooper.

Being There

The most important thing you can do for your preteen during this phase is to listen carefully to what he or she is telling you and acknowledge their feelings. A crush involves an intense set of emotions and it is often difficult for children to express themselves. If your child chooses not to share their feelings with you, it is important to respect their wishes. Sometimes listening involves hearing what is not being said.

It is also important to avoid talking about a crush as if it is a relationship. In truth, a crush is just a glimpse of the deeper romantic feelings that your preteen will feel later in life. “To help your kids develop the capacity for emotional intimacy, it is important to talk to them about creating a foundation of friendship,” recommends Sari Cooper. Seventh grade mom, Madeline says, “I always encourage kindness during and after a crush. These are classmates that they will have for many years to come and they do not want to lose a long term friendship.”

The end goal, for parents, is to protect their child’s self-esteem. Sari recommends that parents watch for a reaction if their child’s feelings are not reciprocated. Preteens are developing their identity and may internalize rejection as “I’m not good enough”, “I need to go on a diet” or in the case of boys, “I need to beef up”. Since not everyone’s feelings get returned, it is important to remind your child that it is not necessarily a reflection on them. Sari suggests emphasizing the importance of finding friends that you really connect with; friends that are authentic and appreciate the gifts you have.

The Future

Crushes for most 8 – 12 year olds are quite innocent. However, there is a big developmental jump when kids turn 13 or 14. The teenage years are important, as it is a critical time in the development of their identity. During these years, without a firm sense of self, kids are most at risk for being overly influenced by peers. Dating early often causes teenagers to compromise who they are in order to make themselves more acceptable. Studies have shown that early romantic relationships are connected with low grades, drug and alcohol use, depression and sexual activity. Sari Cooper recommends that parents don’t wait until the teenage years to share their values with their kids. “It is better to have many conversations over time about relationships, creating intimacy, family values, religion, sexual health and protection.” By starting these dialogues during the preteen years, parents give their children the road map they will need as teenagers.

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