boy and girl with a flower in a heart first crushWhen your fourth-grader says she “likes” a boy at school, you can chalk it up to puppy love. When she’s 12, that announcement might be enough to send you into panic mode.

First crushes are a natural part of your child’s development, but parents still have to navigate the whirlwind of emotions that accompanies your son’s or daughter’s initial foray into a relationship with a member of the opposite sex. When Cupid shoots his first arrow, it brings an entirely new set of parenting challenges. 

The blush of the crush

That means preparations for how you’ll respond the first time your seventh-grader asks for permission to go to the movies with her cute lab partner should begin long before the first day of middle school. “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a strong, healthy relationship with your child that includes plenty of open communication,” says Dr. Gary Lewandowski, associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University. “And that begins as early as possible. If kids have questions about romantic relationships at age 4, parents should address them openly and honestly.”

Conversations about love and attraction can be awkward—and kids with crushes can be notoriously reluctant to share the intimate details of their social lives. Yet parents still have to remain involved in their child’s first romantic experience.

"Research shows that kids actually like the fact that they can talk to their parents about these kinds of issues,” Lewandowski says.

Talking the talk

Kids are more likely to share their feelings about a first crush if parents are non-judgmental. “The most important thing to do is to listen and be supportive,” says Miranda Aaron, a couples and family therapist in Maplewood. “This will send your child the signal that you’re taking her feelings seriously.”

While adults have acquired enough life experience to know that a first love may not last, or that high-school romance doesn’t always reflect true adult relationships, your child is experiencing these overwhelming emotions for the first time. 

“You have the right to ask questions and set guidelines. You want to communicate and show them you’re there to help, but you also have to remember that you’re the adult.”

“Parents can see these relationships for what they are, but your son or daughter can’t,” Lewandowski says. He suggests taking a non-judgmental and curious tone when asking kids about their current romantic interest, doing more listening than talking, and sharing some of your own experiences when appropriate.

He adds that moms and dads should also remain on their best behavior in their own relationship. “When it comes to romantic relationships, parents are modeling behavior for their kids, and serving as a benchmark for what the kids think is ‘normal,’” he says.

In addition, when your child’s affections aren’t reciprocated, be supportive and sympathetic if he feels rejected. A first crush rarely turns into true love, of course, but it’s good practice for life’s inevitable lessons of disappointment and resilience.

Setting boundaries

While a third-grader’s idea of a boyfriend or girlfriend may be the person she eats lunch with in the cafeteria, your tween or teen may have other ideas. However, don’t panic if your 13-year-old son wants to go to a local pizzeria with the object of his affection. Just be sure to set boundaries to ensure your child remains both mentally and emotionally healthy during this first experience in the dating world. 

While that may seem a long time away, it will be here before you know it. And if all the groundwork has been set, it should be a positive experience. “Dating can help young people develop skills in compromise, empathy, and cooperative problem-solving, says Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps, a clinical psychologist in Basking Ridge. “It’s practice for the relationships they’ll have as adults,” she says.

Meanwhile, as your child navigates this new territory of attraction to the opposite sex, “You have the right to ask questions and set guidelines. You want to communicate and show them you’re there to help, but you also have to remember that you’re the adult,” says Tom Kersting, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Ridgewood. “Parents need to be in control of the situation.”

How do you do that? Perhaps by relegating yourself to the back row of the movie theater on your son’s first date, setting new curfews or phone restrictions, or forbidding kids of the opposite sex to spend time alone together behind closed doors.

“It’s a parent’s job to help children think independently, make decisions, and cope with new feelings…including their first crush."

High-tech limits on relationships

It’s no secret that social media have changed the way kids interact, and that includes the way they engage in romantic relationships. Before you allow your child to hole himself up in his bedroom to Facebook chat his love interest, educate yourself on how social media could potentially connect your child with his crush 24 hours a day. Establish rules about kids’ online access—whether that means setting daily time limits on texting or instant messaging a new boyfriend or girlfriend, or routinely monitoring a Facebook page.

“Work with your child to let her know why you’re setting these limits, but always think in terms of how you’re helping her move towards becoming more independent,” says Becker-Phelps. “It’s a parent’s job to help children think independently, make decisions, and cope with new feelings…including their first crush.” 

How to Navigate a Crush

  • Remain involved in your child’s first romantic experience.
  • Listen and be supportive of your child; let her know you take her feelings seriously.
  • Take a non-judgmental and curious tone when asking about his current romantic interest.
  • Model good behavior in your own relationship, so your child has a benchmark for “normal.”
  • Be supportive if your child feels rejected.
  • Ask questions and monitor curfews, phones, time spent alone, and social media.

Jennifer L. Nelson, from Scotch Plains, writes often about health and family issues.

Tell us how you handled, or plan to handle, your child's first crush. What kinds of questions did you, or will you, ask? What about guidelines and setting boundaries?