It’s not easy to be young and in love; ask any preteen girl. Most likely, she’s obsessing right now over a boy in her class — a boy who thinks having a girlfriend is cool, but is frankly more interested in who’ll be playing basketball with him after school.
The gender gap is only one of the hurdles that kids — and their parents — face when they embark on those early relationships grown-ups like to call “crushes.”
For most kids, it begins around fifth or sixth grade, though some precocious children will start having crushes as soon as second grade. A new gender awareness begins to emerge at this age.
“Kids start hanging out more with kids of their own sex,” explains Piper Sangston, a social worker at Tillicum Middle School in Bellevue. “They don’t want to be teased about ‘liking’ someone.”
When sparks fly
By seventh grade, schools introduce sex ed, kids show up at school dances, and sparks start to fly.
“Things become more complicated,” says Sangston. “Girls feel pressure to be prettier and nicer. They have more girl-girl problems because they start to compete for boys.”
Girls, vying for the same boys, sometimes betray each other, and best-friend relationships can suffer, Sangston says.
Some girls become obsessive with crushes. “They call the boy they like 12 times a day, or send him multiple messages, or create fantasies about him,” says Bill Meleney, a Tacoma family therapist. It doesn’t help that 13-year-old girls are considered “culturally incomplete” without a boyfriend, he says.
What are the boys doing amid all this chaos? Most likely, downloading the latest from iTunes or playing the hottest Xbox game. Boys tend to be more casual about all this, says Meleney. “If a guy has a crush on a girl, it’s because she’s cool — or because he’s trying to get into sex too early, to prove something.”
He may try to prove something, even if he hasn’t had sex. “Preadolescent boys can begin to get this macho hypersexual attitude,” says Janine Jones, Ph.D., a University of Washington child psychologist. “They will talk like they are doing things when, in fact, they’re not.”
That’s when a father — or a strong male role model — needs to become involved, she says. “These boys need to learn what’s appropriate and what’s not.”
Young love has been around for a long time, but Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have not. Thanks to cyberspace, teen and tween crushes and relationships move at a supersonic pace these days. “It’s a speedier rumor mill than 20 years ago,” says Sangston. “The information is faster, so the relationships are faster.”
And anything goes. “Everything’s talked about online,” she says. “There are no rules. And it’s easy to be mean.”
That’s why a very old game must be monitored in a very new way. More than ever, mom and dad (or other caretakers) need to be firmly plugged into their kids’ lives. “Parents should ask their kids a lot of questions,” says Meleney. “They should have their kids’ friends over for dinner. They should meet the friends’ parents.”
They should also respect their child’s privacy — up to a point. That point is the computer and the cell phone. “That’s where kids have no right to absolute privacy,” Meleney contends.
Watch for red flags
At the preteen or early-teen stage, “relationship” is often code for “hanging out.” And it shouldn’t be much more than that. But what if it is? What if it’s way more than that? And how’s a parent to figure that out?
Keep your eye out for certain red flags, says Jones. A sudden drop in grades is one. Obsession with seeing, calling or texting the friend is another. “If a child is so preoccupied with a girlfriend or boyfriend that he or she stops doing homework or is texting too much, that’s cause for concern,” says Jones.
And a parent’s antennae should be buzzing if a child is overly secretive. “This is the kid who closes Facebook when the parent enters the room, or gets defensive when asked about school,” she says.
So, how can you cultivate honesty in your child? Model it, says Miriam Hirschstein, Ph.D., a research scientist for Committee for Children. “You can afford to be a little more open about your own experiences. What was it like for you with your first crushes or relationships?”
Use humor, she says. “Tell stories about yourself. Honor their dignity.” Be willing to talk and joke, not just demand or lecture, says Meleney. “Kids who think their parents actually like and respect them and who know what the boundaries are will be much happier and well adjusted, and more open to communicating.”
5 TIPS FOR STAYING CLUED IN TO YOUR CHILD’S FIRST CRUSH
1. Keep your eye on your child’s computer use.
2. Watch for red flags, such as a sudden drop in grades or obsession with seeing a friend.
3. Watch for behavioral changes, such as extreme secretiveness.
4. Be more open about your own first relationships and crushes.
5. Be available to talk to your child, not lecture.