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Your Preteen's First Love

How To Help Your Preteen Survive His First Heartbreak

Whether your preteen suddenly starts talking about someone of the opposite sex or their behavior is more circumspect, it's time to face reality: Your preteen may have a crush. What? You thought this fun stage didn't begin until the teens? Think again.

"Parents of preteens or 'tweens' must know that these girls and boys are just beginning to navigate through all the new hormones they are experiencing," says Nicole Caldwell, pediatric psychologist at Children's Medical Center Dallas. "It is normal for preteens to first notice the eruption of these hormones by a sudden interest in the opposite sex. So what can you do as a parent?"

It's Normal

First, it's important to realize that it really is normal to have a crush – even a serious one – during the preteen years. This is when significant changes in hormones begin. These feelings not only are new, but they're intense, Caldwell says. "Due to their developmental age, they are limited in their ability to look beyond their current emotional state," she says. "Therefore, a crush is serious from their point of view."

Parents should keep in mind, however, that preteens are every bit as vulnerable to hormones as the rest of us. Just as quickly as a crush develops, it can also deflate. Be prepared for your preteen to be hurt. "Just as the emergence of the crush brought much elation and [many] starry-eyed looks, when it ends ... it will likely leave the preteen feeling overwhelmed with sadness," Caldwell says. "This is why it is called a crush."

Boys vs. Girls

Differences between boys and girls are apparent. Libbie Rockman of Pittsburgh, Pa., started noticing her oldest son's crushes when he was 12. She knew the only reason he'd mention a girl is if he had an interest in her. If Josh told his mother that a girl was "kind of nice," she'd ask if he liked her. His answer would be, "Yeah, sorta."

Rockman observed that when a girl didn't like her son in return, he would label the girl as being "a jerk," or he would pick on the guy that she did like. "It seems that the boys turn the rejection around so that it doesn't seem like it matters that the girl doesn't like them," Rockman says.

Having preteen daughters has been a similarly eye-opening experience for Tom Kane. One daughter told him she was having a computer conversation with her crush, who asked if she liked anyone in their class. When she said yes, he began to ask her specifically about every boy in their class, and she said no to each one. When he asked if she liked him, she signed off the computer without answering. "She told me she did it in order to 'drive him crazy,'" says the Maple Shade, N.J., resident. "Having been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment in the distant past, I was shocked. Where did they learn this from?"

Kristy Hagar, pediatric neuropsychologist at Children's Medical Center Dallas, answers the question Kane's question this way: Kids this age are beginning to explore how they can manipulate the reactions of others. "They still have some difficulty fully recognizing and empathizing the ramifications their actions may have on someone else's feelings," Hagar says. As she points out, this is a chance for parents to talk to their children.

The differences between sexes are indeed striking. "It is more socially acceptable for a girl to admit to having a crush on a boy and to express her interest and devotion," Hagar says. "Boys with preteen crushes are probably much more likely to endure silently and from afar, while a girl can rally her troops and focus on a plan of action to get the boy she adores."

Beyond Innocent

Crushes aren't relegated to peers, either. It's common for preteens to develop crushes on adults with whom they interact on a regular basis. Caldwell says there's nothing wrong with having a crush on a teacher – most preteens do at some point. This kind of crush is fine, as long as the preteen doesn't make his/her feelings known to the object of affection. Parents should be wary of any adult that crosses the line.

When a crush becomes obsessive, that's when parents should intervene. "A crush should not overtake a child's life," Caldwell says. "At this point, parents should seriously consider taking their child to a counselor or psychologist."

According to Caldwell, a crush is considered obsessive when the preteen begins to cross the line of invading someone else's privacy or life or when a parent notices that their child is losing friends or isolating himself due to his obsession.

Parents should take the crush seriously and use the time to talk about issues such as sex. "Make sure the talk is not all straight facts," Caldwell says. "Put in your opinion on love and relationships." An ongoing dialog is best. Remember that you're still teaching values to your child. "Parents should not be afraid to assert their control," Caldwell says.

Among the boundaries Caldwell suggests are telling your preteen that it's OK to spend time with this crush at gatherings and events, but it's not OK for just the two of them to spend time together – alone. That places too much emphasis on the romance and could also alienate them from friendships that are just as, if not more, important.

Invite their crush over to your home, as this sets the stage for later, when they might be dating seriously. If you make this a habit, you'll be introduced to future "friends" without having to ask. "A good rule of thumb is that preteens should go out in groups, not dates," Caldwell says. "Preteen dating encourages children to grow up too fast."

The bottom line is to let things take their course. "Don't forcefully try to prohibit a natural thing," Caldwell says. "Chances are, your tween will go behind your back in romancing the object of their crush."

Remember, it's OK – even beneficial – to have a crush. "You will never become a famous writer if you don't dream it first, and you will never have a romantic relationship if you don't also dream it first," Caldwell says.

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