Recently, Elizabeth’s* nine-year-old daughter, Madison*, announced she had a “crush” on her classmate Daniel*. On a school trip, Elizabeth noticed the feeling was mutual. Daniel was jostling and poking Madison, and “there was a sparkle in both of their eyes,” she says. “I was a bit surprised that it was happening at such a young age.”
Many kids experience a genuine early crush, but others feel that all their friends are lovestruck, and they want to fit in, says Catherine Cameron, a child therapist in Kitchener, Ont. Some kids may be emulating their older siblings or tv and movie characters. So what’s a conscientious parent to do? Read on to get a clue about your preteen’s love life.
Not all smitten preteens react the same way. Boys tend to hide their feelings more, expressing them in a physically playful way, says Cameron. But some are cocky – they use locker-room talk when they dish about their crush, saying she has nice boobs. Or they might call her a “dog” – hip-hop kid slang for close friend – clueless that a girl might not take that as a compliment. Girls giggle, whisper and dare one another to write, instant message or call boys.
Despite the goofiness, a first crush is powerful. “Some kids feel like they’re really in love,” says Cameron. Andie*, mom of 12-year-old Shane* in Regina, Sask., says he’s so preoccupied with his girlfriend that he has little appetite. And he takes great care to style his hair and choose trendy clothes to impress his girl.
“Going out” at this age can mean playing at recess, calling each other or, believe it or not, active dating. Shane arranges parent-chauffeured movie dates with other couples and, on one occasion, alone with his girlfriend. So – even at this tender age – Shane’s dad thought it was important to have the talk about respecting girls and understanding that no means no.
“Kids may do some sneaky stuff like kiss or hold hands,” says Cameron. But limit their unattended time alone so they don’t explore further – they’re way too young to start heading down that road. Most preteens still want to please their parents, says Cameron. So it’s fine to enforce rules that fit with your family’s beliefs, such as no dating until they’re 15, or seeing a crush at supervised group events only. Also curtail endless instant messaging or phone calls. If your child seems all-consumed, plan family activities and help him choose other interests.
But what if your disinterested child is someone else’s crush? At age 11, Caty* received frequent phone calls from a boy she didn’t like. “I felt badly that she wasn’t returning his calls,” says mom Lorraine* of Tweed, Ont. So she coached her daughter to explain that she wasn’t ready for a relationship.
At this age, however, it’s actually more common for girls to chase oblivious boys (by phone and on the playground). Girls tend to be more vocal about their crushes, says Cameron.
Watching your child endure rejection is painful. But don’t try to talk her out of it with an other-fish-in-the-sea discussion, says Cameron. “Kids need to feel.” Listen, acknowledge her feelings, maybe share a getting-dumped story of your own – but keep it short so you don’t shut them down. When the initial tears are dried, help your kid make a getting-over-it plan – that could mean writing in a journal, calling a friend or focusing on an upcoming soccer game. This will help your preteen learn how to cope with future disappointments.
Finally, if your child’s never been lovestruck, that’s certainly no cause for concern. Depending on a preteen’s temperament, peers and interests, romance may not be a priority. Nancy of Victoria says she doesn’t know if her son has ever had a crush on anyone, as a preteen or a teen. “I’ve tried to look for clues. But he’s a fairly private person, and I respect that.”