When Your Child’s First Crush Is a Crushing Experience

The smart way for parents to handle this emotional event

A five-year-old Richmond, Virginia, boy recently came home from his first day of kindergarten and announced, “Mommy, I just wanted to tell you, I found the girl I am going to marry.”

Childhood crushes are very common among school-aged kids, and parents are sometimes at a loss when it comes to knowing what to do after they discover their child is having these feelings toward another young person.

At first, it may cause panic. But kids can absolutely form strong emotional attachments to their peers or even teachers. It’s important to keep in mind these aren’t hormone-driven infatuations like those teenagers experience. The exchange of hugs, love notes, simple gifts, or an innocent kiss are a child’s way of saying, “I like you a lot!” Love, it is not.

If your child’s crush is a teacher, he or she may be more eager to get to school, or talk at length about that teacher once back home.

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The Virginia kindergartener’s mother curiously asked her son to tell her about the girl who had caught his eye. He said she was pretty, wore shoes that sparkled, and carried a purple book bag. He said he thought a mom should know when her son had found a wife. His mom cautioned him about moving too fast, and to maybe not mention anything about marriage or love — for now. She encouraged him to work at being this special girl’s friend — and worry about the other stuff later.

A week later, the boy announced he and the girl wouldn’t be getting married. He had told the girl about his marriage plans — and she had told him she already had a boyfriend. He was disappointed. But — mom and son talked it over, and he decided he could still be her friend.

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If your child is giving you hints that he or she has a crush, consider these tips for helping your young one learn and grow from the experience:

1.) Be curious.
You’ll be in a better position to help your child if you avoid jumping to conclusions; if you come to the wrong ones, the child may clam up. Instead, begin by expressing curiosity about things you’ve noticed.

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You may notice your child is talking more about one friend than about others. This other child’s name might be inscribed across the pages of a notebook or  painted with colorful ink on an arm. You might find love notes in your child’s pocket or backpack. He might ask for a cellphone, send texts or emails, or receive messages from a child you don’t know. If your child’s crush is a teacher, he may be more eager to get to school, or talk at length about the teacher when he gets home.

As you see changes in your child’s behavior that may indicate a new kind of friendship is developing, ask questions. Let your child talk at a pace that’s comfortable. Resist the impulse to squeeze out details. Instead, share with your child the clues you’ve noticed. You might say something like, “I noticed your face lights up when you talk about her. What’s she like?”

Draw out more information before assuming there’s a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” When all the evidence points in that direction, ask if your child thinks of this person that way. If your hunch is confirmed, then you may ask what having this boyfriend or girlfriend means, whether the feelings are returned, and what they like to do together.

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Be careful not to chuckle at what your child says — or dismiss his feelings in any way. The point of your curiosity is to gather as much information as possible, taking as much time as necessary for your child to trust you with this topic. The wrong reaction could sever important lines of communication.

2.) Provide guidance.
Once you’ve taken time to understand the nature of the crush, you’re in a better position to provide guidance. (Guidance given too soon is like giving driving directions to someone before you know where they want to go.) Unless you see your child being put in danger or taken advantage of by another, avoid bombarding him with advice. Check in with him a few times a week on how things are going; invite your child come to you with any concerns and problems.

When helping a child cope with relationship issues, the best guidance from a parent is to share stories from your own experience. Remember to keep your guidance age-appropriate. Think back to your first childhood crush. (Mine was on a second-grade teacher.) Keep in mind, any crush your children have is not sexual desire — it is an admiration for someone who makes them feel special. It might have been the way this person smiled or spoke to your child. Maybe the person held your child’s hand, or gave a gift.

As your children share things they like and don’t like about the person, this is a good time to teach them about what qualities to look for in a friend, what makes a person trustworthy, and how to respond to behavior your child doesn’t like.

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If your child’s crush is on someone who isn’t reciprocating, you might be able to share a time this happened to you. Tell your son or daughter it’s OK for that person to not want to be a “girlfriend” or “boyfriend.” And if your child comes to feel like a special relationship is no longer working, give tips on respectfully breaking it off.

When your child’s crush turns into a crushing experience — don’t brush it off.

3.) Protect your child.
If your young son or daughter is being exploited by someone who lies, cheats, steals, or threatens danger, you must set up strong boundaries. When doing this, explain what you’re doing in an age-appropriate way. Forbidding your child to see or talk to another person without explaining why will cause your child to lose trust in you.

It’s also important to not leave young children unsupervised. The ease with which sexual content can get into homes today makes it more likely kids will be exposed to these images, and kids mimic what they see. When left without supervision by responsible adults, they may become the victim of another child’s violent or sexual role play.

4.) Be sympathetic.
When your child’s crush turns into a crushing experience, don’t brush it off. A child’s lack of experience with negative emotions can make it difficult for him or her to know what to do. There may be a fear the feelings will never go away, or your child may even feel physically sick.

Help kids put their feelings into words — they won’t know how to label their emotions. A parent can help with this. Tell them about a time when you felt similar feelings, how you used positive coping skills — and how the negative feelings healed and stopped hurting over time.

Jon Beaty, a life coach and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”

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