Boys, girls and blushes are a part of growing up. But when should you expect all of the drama to begin? And, how can you navigate all of the ups and downs of adolescence and maintain your sanity, too?
I remember my first boyfriend like our courtship was yesterday. Jack Pieratt – the “it” guy – was the object of my affection, and as it happened, I was the object of his. And after much discussion and guideline setting, we decided that we would “go together.” While “going together,” as it was called in my time, was little more than passing notes and giving presents on holidays, it was a shot of self-esteem for this southern girl.
We were the First Couple of the sixth grade. OK, perhaps it wasn’t that regal, but with him, I felt like a queen. Fast forward several weeks, and my heart was broken – aching even, if I recall – as the relationship that was built on such trust and solidarity crumbled. And, that’s why they call it a “crush.”
The Roles They Play
James G. Wellborn, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with a child, adolescent and family practice in Williamson County, says that children typically show an interest in the opposite sex at the onset of puberty – for girls, around 11 years old, and for boys, age 12 or 13. “Girls have very different interests from boys,” says Wellborn. “So there would need to be other reasons for interest, such as emerging sexual feelings and the development of more sophisticated abilities to share and interact with others.”
Wellborn says that how girls play as children explains much of how early relationships with boys play out. “Girls have a long socialized history of experience with relationships. This is most clearly seen in watching young girls engage in play with dolls,” says Wellborn. “Conversations, relationships, role definition, breaking up and making up.
All these things are present throughout their play in childhood.” As they grow and as their interest in boys grows, their behavior parallels that of early childhood. A girl may begin making efforts to get a certain boy’s attention and will employ the help of a friend from her same-sex group to act as her spokesperson, going between her and the boy to gauge whether his feelings are reciprocated.
Additionally, says Brian Gannon, M.D., of Centennial Pediatrics in Murfreesboro, appearance begins to matter more. “They may pay more attention to their look and clothes to attract a certain person.”
For local dad Tom Guardino, his 12-year-old daughter, Hallie, began showing interest in boys at around age 10. “She was writing boys’ names on everything she could,” says Guardino. “She’d giggle on the phone with her girlfriends.”
Just as girls’ early childhood play explains their social development, the same is true for boys. “With the absence of any meaningful previous practice or experience, boys are extremely awkward and clumsy in their attempts to demonstrate affection for girls,” says Wellborn. “Initially, they have an interest without a clue as to how these things work. So, they try to translate some of their experience relating to guys to their interaction with girls. Hence, the proverbial pulling of pigtails.”
“I remember crying to my mother about how this one boy in my seventh grade class was always making fun of me or something about me – what I was wearing, whatever,’ says Jessica Butler of Nashville. “And, she just said, ‘I know you don’t understand this, but it probably means he likes you.'”
Wellborn says that boys’ “rules” require that he not admit that he’s interested in a girl. “It shows a tender emotion, which is taboo for boys, especially in early adolescence,” he says. “He has to walk a fine line of trying to express his interest without making it obvious. Only the most secure 11- to 13-year-old can pull this off.”
Are You Sitting Down?
Assuming your child has successfully navigated the awkward initiation of interest, what’s next? If your child does come home and announce that he’s going steady, first, consider yourself lucky that he said anything at all. Second, don’t panic – yet.
“The typical first boy/girlfriend is mostly in name only,” says Wellborn. “They have no real clue what to do. When the girl tries to initiate meaningful interactions, the boy is typically completely lost. He is relegated to follow the girl’s lead. Then, when she gets frustrated that he is not able to initiate interaction or to really get what he is supposed to “do,” the relationship ends. Without the pull of puberty, you wonder why they would continue to engage in this frustrating activity.”
In all reality, psychology aside, the actual relationship will likely just take the form of being a title, a la “going steady,” “going together” or “going out.” “Hallie and all her girlfriends say they’re “going out” with someone,” says Guardino, “but in reality, they don’t have dates. I guess it’s more of a title to show more affection for one person.”
What to Say, What to Do
For some reason, despite the fact that the adolescent is going through the awkward phase, many parents are the ones who feel awkward. “Should I ask her about this boy who keeps calling?” “Why is he acting so fruity whenever this girl’s name comes up?” What’s the parent of a “crushing” ‘tween to do?
“The most important element of parenting is to have a channel of communication with your child,” says Wellborn. “Parents should always ask questions. Setting the expectation that when someone is important to your child, you expect to know about him and how the relationship is going is true for friendships as well as boyfriends/girlfriends.” Wellborn says that it’s typical to get a lot of information from daughters – “to the point that a father’s eyes will start to glaze over” – and less than nothing from boys.
Nurturing an open line of communication early in childhood is essential, too. “My wife and Hallie pretty much talk about everything,” says Guardino. “Hallie and I have a pretty strong relationship as well. We talk a lot about her relationships with both boys and girls.”
What’s Acceptable, What’s Not
As with all-things-parenting, though, what a first relationship IS will be dictated by what you – the parent – set forth as acceptable. “Parents should have very clear rules about dating, and there should be pretty strict limits,” says Wellborn. “The relationship should be mostly in their heads and in conversation and written exchange (letters, email, etc.) and not in the time spent together.”
Gannon suggests parents talk openly with their ‘tween about their feelings and beliefs regarding love, romance and sexuality. “They will not volunteer anything about their relationships unless parents show an open, nonjudgmental interest in them and their friends.” Additionally, Gannon says that it’s best to discuss rules and morals with your child by no later than age 10 or 11 – before that first crush – so there will be no grey area.
Make Room for the Broken Hearted
If all doesn’t go as hoped for your young romantic, it’s time to step up and grab the tissues, but first give yourself a pat on the back. “If your child lets you know he has a broken heart,” says Wellborn, “count yourself lucky.” And, while his friends will help him in getting over the slump, YOU will be essential in healing the pain.
For boys, parents may need to tap in to their intuition and do a little mind reading. Assume that the boy is upset, and initiate a conversation. Discuss the feelings he’s having and offer some resolve. Addditionally, it may help to explain that now is not the time for a serious relationship anyway and that there’s plenty of time for that later. Wellborn adds, “You can tell that it’s helping if he continues to hang around while you’re talking.”
Girls, of course, will handle heartache differently, wearing their emotions on their sleeves. “It’s important to realize that girls will first want to just be supported in their emotional upset – sympathy, encouragement, support,” offers Wellborn. “Then and only then do you try to actually help by making suggestions and problem solving.” This is perhaps why girls gravitate toward their mothers for support through tough times. Men characteristically move immediately toward problem solving, often foregoing the sympathetic ear.
But while moms may be the ones daughters naturally go to for healing, don’t discount Dad just yet. The other role that dads play with their daughters is validation. His affection counteracts the feelings of rejection and concerns that they aren’t attractive to boys. A dad offering his daughter the old “if he doesn’t appreciate how wonderful you are, he isn’t the boy for you” goes a long way.
Ashley Driggs is managing editor for this publication.
If your child begins a relationship, no matter how serious, Wellborn and Gannon suggest you keep the following considerations in mind. They may be signs that things are heading down an unhealthy path.
- In an initial relationship, children should be of the same age or no more than one year apart until age 14. One year can make a huge difference in maturity levels.
- Any behavior that mimics an adult relationship before age 14 (holding hands, kissing, etc.) is a no-no.
- Kids who are interested in each other should spend time together only in groups until age 14.
- Keep an eye out for an imbalance in time spent with and interest shown in a boyfriend/girlfriend and the child’s core base of friends.
- Aggressive, overly sexual advances and controlling behavior requires serious parental intervention