By Shannon Philpott, an eHow Contributor updated February 25, 2011
Print this article From a parent's perspective, a child's crush may seem innocent, even insignificant, but the opposite can often be true. When heavy emotions are joined with a preteen's adolescent maturity, parents should be particularly sensitive to the situation.(photo: Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images) This is serious business, and telling your preteen that it's not a big deal will only create distance between the two of you.
When Terrina Picarello was in the eighth grade, she fell hard for a boy. Her summer crush was doomed to end -- the boy went to a different school -- but dealing with the heartbreak is something she remembers well. "I sat in my room and played the record 'Endless Love' over and over for days and cried and cried," Picarello said.
Her brothers and parents left her alone to deal with her feelings, and it took Picarello, a licensed counselor in Scottsdale, Arizona, almost two years to get over that first broken heart. "At least they did not make fun of me," Picarello said. "But they just let me stew in it."
Crushes are a natural part of growing up, but far too often, children feel alone and isolated with their feelings. Even worse, they tend to seek advice from their peers instead of trusted adults, prompting irrational decisions and actions. As a parent, you might know how it feels to fall head over heels, but do you know how to help your child cope with the same feelings you experienced years ago?
Recognizing the Stages
Understanding the stages of a crush can help parents ease the pain and encourage children to react appropriately at any age. "It can happen anytime from preschool to high school," Picarello said.
Margaret Briem, a parent and author of "The Parent Plan: A Guide to Intentional Parenting," has named the typical stages of a crush. She calls the first stage the Worship Stage. "It's when the child idolizes her crush and the whole world stops when this person walks by," Briem said.
The next stage, the High-Stress Stage, happens when your child is preparing to approach the object of her crush. "Some will not even get to this phase for fear of rejection," Briem said. While coping with the stress of her decision, your child might experience mood swings and show irritability toward household routines.
The third stage, the Romance-Awkward Stage, determines the course of your child's looming relationship. "She is trying to be accepted but, at the same time, still feeling very awkward," Briem said. During this stage, one of two things will happen: Your child will be rejected, or your child will be accepted and a relationship will begin.
As all good things must come to an end, the final stage is what Briem calls the Anger-Grief Period -- your child deals with a breakup and heartbreak. "Typically, the child finds that the person she idolized is not who she thought he was," Briem said. Some children might breeze right through this stage if the relationship ends amicably; others might spend months pining over the loss of a crush.
Talking to Your Child
For a child, a crush is a turning point in her life. She learns how to make decisions and handle emotional turmoil. You are her guide.
According to Dr. Joseph Shrand, an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, parents must first remember how their own first crushes felt. "Parents can manage the raging hormonal teenage crush with greater ease by recognizing that the teenage brain is more emotional and impulsive than rational," Shrand said. "The feelings can be exciting, passionate, but also very confusing. The last thing a parent wants to do is contribute to that irrationality."
Finding the right words to comfort and reassure your child can be difficult. Neil McNerney, a licensed professional counselor and adjunct faculty member at the Virginia Tech Graduate School, recommends letting your child know that you trust her judgment. "Do say some nice things about the person, such as, 'I can see why you would like him' or 'He seems really nice.' "
Picarello suggests finding out why your child likes this person. "Talk to them about how they feel about the situation and the person they are interested in and you will learn about your child in the process. Parents can look at it as a way to teach their child about growing up," she said. "Let them know it is a normal part of growing up to have a crush, and tell your child about your first crush. Let them know that we have these feelings because we're human."
Your child must be reassured that crushes are not weird. "It is incredibly important to not make the child feel embarrassed or ashamed," Picarello said. "Many parents are reactive because they are not prepared for this discussion. Unfortunately, they create shame, and shame becomes a cancer that will get stuck in a child."
McNerney also warns that parents should not make fun or even call the crush "cute." "This is serious business, and telling your preteen that it's not a big deal will only create distance between the two of you," he said. "Teasing only backfires. Be gentle. It's not her 'little boyfriend.' "
Telling your child what she can and cannot feel is also detrimental, McNerney said. "Telling her 'You are too young to have a crush' always backfires. But you can tell her what she can and cannot do, such as, 'You are too young to hang out at the mall with him without an adult being there.' "
Finding the right words when the relationship is over is equally important. "Don't tell her that she will feel better in the morning," McNerney said. "Our preteen needs to know that at that moment we understand how she feels."
Setting Boundaries and Limitations
Boundaries and limitations should revolve around each family's values, Picarello said. "Teach your child about your family values and why you have them established. This will then open the door for a discussion about appropriate actions for your child's age."
A parent not only has a right to set limits for behavior based on these values but also a responsibility to provide supervision, Picarello said. "You don't want your child put in a situation where she is exposed to something she is too young to handle. Supervision is key."
Picarello recommends getting to know the parents of your child's friends and crushes and stipulating that she must hang out in groups only when an adult is present. "They don't have the ability to think ahead and intervene on their own behalf," she said. "A parent needs to be checking in on them regularly."
According to Shrand, it's OK for parents to be the bad guy, sometimes. "By taking on the role of limit-setter, you can help a kid save face while also giving them the relief of not being in a difficult and awkward situation. It may be just as scary for a kid to go to a movie with a crush but too embarrassing to say so."
The boundaries set depend on the maturity level and age of each child. "Keep in mind that any boundaries need to be about what you think is appropriate for a child their age, not about whether you approve of the object of their crush," McNerney said. "You can't stop your preteen from thinking about her crush, but you can stop her from texting him 3,000 times a day."
Launching open discussions about your child's actions will help her work through feelings of resistance to rules and help you, as a parent, learn about what is happening in your child's life, Picarello said. Negotiate limitations and explain your rationale so your child feels part of the process and valued as a contributing family member.
Although parents can set limits to protect their children, heartbreak is often unavoidable. "The biggest thing you cannot protect is the broken heart," McNerney said. "We want our kids to stop hurting, but relationship pain is a necessary part of growing up."