What to Do When Kids Fall in Love
“Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.”—Zora Neale Hurston, author
When kids fall in love, parents can feel baffled about how to respond and how to help kids make sense of their intense feelings. As parents, we also tend to get anxious when our kids fall in love too much (or too hard)—or when our kids don’t seem interested at all in dating. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, young love is in full bloom. Consider these tips to help guide you and your kids through the perils of young love.
• Affirm the joy of falling in love—even if your love life hasn’t always been easy. Try to remember what it was like when you first fell in love.
• Take kids’ feelings seriously. You may not think it’s a big deal for a sixth grader to fall in love, but it’s a huge deal to your sixth grader. Treat it with the same seriousness as your child does. (That also means if the relationship goes sour, be caring and compassionate. Don’t say, “You’re so young. Others will come along.”)
• Model and talk about appropriate ways to express love and care. Our society tends to be sex obsessed. Instead, focus on the relationship aspect of dating, such as getting to know someone, revealing your self to them, and caring for each other in tender ways, such as holding hands.
• Don’t make assumptions about your child’s sexual orientation. Create safe ways to talk about attraction without attaching a bias to sexual orientation, which your kids will pick up right away. You want your kids to talk to you, not avoid you.
More about GLBT youth
• Be calm about young love. Be careful not to overreact (and make it a bigger deal than it is) or under react (by dismissing it). Ask your child questions, such as, “What do you like about this person?” “How does this relationship make you feel?”
• Remember that your child being attracted to someone doesn’t mean your child is having sexual intercourse. Talk about attractions and appropriate ways to act.
• Young children often play with a variety of kids. If your child plays with someone of the opposite sex, don’t start calling their relationship “boyfriend and girlfriend.” Young children need to focus on friendships, not on dating.
• Between the ages of 3 and 5, young children become aware of their sexuality. They often ask questions about their bodies—and other people’s bodies. Answer their questions simply, correctly, and calmly.
• If your child plays with his or her genitals, know that it’s normal curiosity and it’s healthy and natural. At the same time, teach your child that sexual play and nudity are not acceptable in public or as ways to play with their friends.
• Teach kids that their private parts are private. Only medical personnel can touch them during physical examinations. Only parents can look at them if the child is in pain in that area. Otherwise, kids aren’t to show their private parts to other people or allow others to touch them in these areas.
• Children at this age can sometimes develop a crush on a classmate or a teacher. This is healthy—as long as your child doesn’t start acting inappropriately. (Such as stalking the person or not being able to do anything but think about the person.)
• Don’t be surprised if kids talk about boyfriends or girlfriends and then drop the subject for months. At this age, they’re becoming more aware of dating, but most aren’t interested in it for long.
• Puberty is happening at younger and younger ages. The average age for girls to go through puberty is now at age 10. (That means some girls are getting their first menstrual cycles at age 9, 8, or even age 7.) Talk to your child about these changes when they start to happen.
• Young teenagers are quick to pick up that sexuality can be a taboo subject. Be open about the topic. Talk about dating and sexuality in everyday ways, such as how much you enjoy being with your partner (if you have one), or how you’re reacting to something your family watches on TV or in the movies that’s about dating or sexuality. Focus on the relationship aspects. Talk about your values about sexuality and why you have the values that you do.
• Point out the differences in development. Girls tend to go through puberty before guys. Yet, kids develop at different rates—even within the same gender. Explain how all this is normal. More on development >
• Encourage your child to date in groups rather than individually. Dating someone one-on-one at a young age can be scary and overwhelming. Dating in groups (where a group of kids all go to the movies together or out to eat) often helps young people feel more comfortable and less stressed about what “others expect them to do.”
• By this age, teenagers can get into very serious dating relationships. If this happens, talk about your values and what your hopes are for your teenager. Discuss how a dating relationship can sometimes become so intense that teens forget about their friends and activities. Encourage teens to develop a balance and not move so quickly.
• Explain how a lot of teenagers date and wait to have sexual intercourse until they’re older. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 54 percent of teenagers do not have sexual intercourse. That’s more than half. More on early sexual activity >
• Find ways to get to know the teenager your teen is dating. Invite the person over for pizza or ice cream. Create a fun way to spend some time together to show your teenager that you’re interested in who he or she dates.
• Periodically ask your teenager about dating. Be interested—but not overly nosy. Explain that you understand that your teenager may want to keep some things private but that you’re always willing to listen to what your teenager has to say.