How to Handle Your Child's First Crush

When school begins, so might playground weddings. Here, we break down age-by-age tips for handling your child's first crush.

Elementary school girl happy to receive a flower from a boy
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Around the time they're able to attend elementary school, kids can experience their first crush. Some parents may feel blindsided by how early this can occur, but experts say it's perfectly normal. In this article, we talk about why your little one might be crushing on someone in school, how to talk about first crushes, and what to do about them (hint: just be supportive!)

When Does a Kid's First Crush Happen?

Experts say that kids commonly have their first crush when they're 5 or 6. "Younger children focus their love on their family," explains Cynthia Langtiw, Psy.D., assistant professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. "But as kids enter kindergarten or first grade, they feel affection for their classmates too because they're spending more time in school and in activities outside their family." Many psychologists actually regard crushes as a milestone in the developmental years; that's because they teach kids about attraction, privacy, and more.

How to Spot the Signs of a Childhood Crush

Your kid might be eager to share the news with you. However, it's more likely they'll play coy, says Kristin Lagattuta, Ph.D., associate professor of developmental psychology at the University of California, Davis.

Depending on your child's age, you may be able to pick up on some clues that they're experiencing a first crush, according to Lauren Cook-McKay, a marriage and family therapist, who also works as the director of marketing and content at Divorce Answers. Here's the age-by-age breakdown.

Age 6 to 9

This is usually when kids start having crushes. You may notice they want to hang out with a certain person, and they'll show interest in new hobbies that are typically their crush's hobbies. You'll often hear your child mention their name in conversations around school and during playdates.

Age 10 to 13

During this age, children start going through puberty. They're exploring changes to their bodies and reactions to people they like, says Cook-McKay. "Sexual attraction and the concept of dating are all being explored around this age."

You might notice your child finds ways to hang out with their crush — often by themselves. They may also start asking interesting questions from time to time, such as what happens on dates, when was your first kiss, etc. Overall, your child becomes curious about what a relationship looks like and what it means to be dating someone.

Age 13 to 15

During the teenage years, kids are exposed to realistic relationships everywhere, especially on social media. They'll continue asking questions about relationships, and they might start hanging out with a different peer group. Kids this age are typically more proactive rather than communicative about their crushes. You'll likely see that they want to look attractive and charming in front of their crush, says Cook-McKay.

My Child Has Their First Crush—Now What?

So you've determined that your child is "crushing" on someone at school, sports practice, or the playground. Now it's up to you to decide how to handle it. "When your child musters up the courage to actually mention a crush, instead of acting defensive as a parent or instead of dismissing it as just a 'crush', act interested and supportive," says Cook-McKay.

Show your child that you're just as interested as they are in their crushes. Ask what your child likes about them and whether they're getting along in class. But don't push your kid to act on their crushes or insist on meeting them. Let your child explore their feelings by themselves and simply be there to guide them and support them in their decisions, says Cook-McKay.

Chat about childhood crushes casually.

Some parents avoid talking about crushes altogether, while others are tempted to squeeze out every last detail. The best tactic: Don't push, but start with general questions and follow your child's lead. For instance, if your son says he has a girlfriend, ask what that means to him. His response may range from, "She's my best friend" to "We got married during recess."

How can you find out what's going on if they don't bring up the topic? "You might say, 'I noticed that you've been hanging out with Violet lately. Do you feel different when you're around her?'" suggests Dr. Langtiw. Try not to chuckle at what your child says or dismiss their feelings, because you want them to feel comfortable opening up to you.

Determine if the crush is mutual.

Suppose your child likes someone in their class. After you explore what they're going through, ask whether they think their crush feels the same about them. If the answer is no, explain that it's important to respect the other person's feelings. You can say something like, "I know you like Josh, but you shouldn't try to make him like you, because he might feel uncomfortable and that's not how real friends treat each other." By the same token, if a person has a crush on your child but they don't share the feelings, let your child know that it's OK not to want to be their girlfriend or boyfriend.

Set boundaries.

While childhood crushes rarely amount to more than writing notes or hanging out at recess, some kids may want to hold hands or kiss on the cheek. Experts generally agree that these physical behaviors have nothing to do with sexuality at this age. "Kids are just starting on a path of putting together the ideas of love, physical feelings, and connection," says Lisa Spiegel, cofounder of Soho Parenting, in New York City. But it's smart to talk about boundaries. "You can tell your child that it's OK to play together at school but not to kiss," says Dr. Langtiw.

Heal hurt feelings.

Early infatuations usually don't last long—and most kids get over them quickly. However, your child may be hurt if a classmate says they don't want to be their "girlfriend" or "boyfriend" anymore. "Ask your child how they feel about it," suggests Dr. Lagattuta. "Then point out all the great qualities and the other friends they have." It's also helpful to mention some of your experiences from childhood so your child realizes that what they're going through is perfectly normal.

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