“First-love” emotions are intense to preteens. Parents should step back, remember how it felt and actively listen to their child’s feelings.
Lisa Beamer didn’t have to work very hard to figure out that her son was in love for the first time. Even if Zach hadn’t been open about his feelings, his attention-getting antics around the object of his desire – a girl in his fourth-grade class – were enough to tip off the mom of three. “He would bring it up and get all goofy about it,” recalls Beamer. His antics included painting the girl’s name on his face at a school game night and chasing after her to ask her to “go” with him.
“‘Go’ where, I don’t know,” Beamer laughs.
Unfortunately, many children, especially boys, aren’t as forthcoming about matters of the heart. Many parents are left bewildered as their child, deep in the throes of first love, rides an emotional roller coaster. Experts say that though parents may feel unprepared for this first taste of adolescence, their actions can make things easier for kids.
It’s Not Just Puppy Love
One of the first things to realize is that children’s romantic yearnings stem from powerful biological urges intended to help them mature and separate from their family, says Robert Billingham, Ph.D., a professor of human development and family studies. “One of the functions of biological crushes during early adolescence is to propel the child away from the family into the peer community,” says Billingham.
Though parents may be tempted to dismiss the romance as puppy love, the emotions pre-adolescents experience are “very, very real,” Billingham explains. Adults should practice compassion and avoid teasing or belittling behaviors.
“Don’t make a big deal about it, and especially don’t tease about it,” agrees Mary Lamia, Ph.D., family counselor and host of Radio Disney’s “KidTalk” call-in show.
So what can parents do? Ask open questions, Billingham suggests, such as, “Is there something you want to talk about?” Then back off and wait for a response, which can be several hours or even days in coming.
Parents can also share appropriate aspects of their own first love to let their child know what he’s feeling is natural. The intensity of emotions can be overwhelming and scary. “From the child’s perspective, this is the most powerful love that ever existed,” says Billingham. “Parents need to step back and remember their own experience.”
At the same time, though, allow kids to have their own feelings. Says Lamia, “We have to take ourselves out of that and really listen to what the child is saying.”
When It Ends: Handling the Breakup
Virtually every crush is destined for an unhappy ending, usually in a matter of weeks. “The crush will fail. It’s inevitable,” says Billingham. “And the child will be devastated.” Though no parent wants to see her child in pain, experts say crushes can actually help the child develop psychological strength and learn to handle peer rejection – important skills for teens and adults.
Lamia recommends that parents encourage their children to look beyond the hurt. “Help your child focus on moving forward and getting on,” instead of longing after the past relationship, she says.
Use the experience to talk about loyalty, just as if a child’s same-sex friendship had ended. Mention that if the other person doesn’t feel the same, it’s better to know that now than after investing more time and energy into the relationship. “Also point out the future and how many people the child is going to meet,” Lamia suggests.
Though painful, the end of a relationship, Lamia says, can “present a golden opportunity for parents to get to know their child and teach the child tools to deal with disappointment and conflict.”
One caveat: Lamia says if your child is still obsessing about the break-up after a week, it may be time to seek outside help.
Lain Chroust Ehmann is a freelance writer and mother of three.
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