Age of Un-Innocence

Confronting difficult topics with kids

What’s the Best Way to Respond to Your Child’s Crush?

When cupid’s arrow stings

You’re sitting in your favorite chair, reading the newspaper, not a care in the world, when all of a sudden the living room door flies open. It’s your 13-year-old daughter. A stream of tears pours down her cheeks as she cries out, “How could I have been so stupid as to think that he could ever be my boyfriend?!”

Right away you know exactly whom she’s talking about—she’s been thinking and dreaming for months about Gary, who recently moved into town. But what can you say? What could anyone say to relieve the sense of betrayal you can see her feeling—not because of a relationship gone awry but because a fantasy didn’t pan out. Ready or not, your daughter is the victim of her first heartbreaking crush.

You simply hug her and listen because that is what she needs. Once—though it probably seems like centuries ago—you, too, felt the pain of learning that someone you were completely head-over-heels for did not feel the same way. Over the next few minutes, your embrace can provide a bandage to her emotional wound as she begins to talk. As she recounts her “stupidity” over the last few months, it becomes clear that Gary’s role in her life was more like snippets from a movie than reality.

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Every time she ran into Gary in the hallway at school or saw him in class, she would feel energized and elated. She’d be looking in one direction, talking with friends, but then Gary would pass behind her, and automatically she would lose her train of thought. Whenever he was around, she would fixate on his every turn and gesture. As she speaks, you realize how serious her crush was when she describes his favorite colors, his favorite sports, how he likes to comb his hair, and how his dimples change when he smiles.

Finally she tells you what burst her bubble: Gary’s girlfriend from his hometown, whom your daughter never knew existed, just enrolled at the high school. Not only did Gary greet her excitedly, but also he “swirled her around in the hall and then actually came up and introduced me to her as a friend who could show her around.”

“I felt like my heart was gonna stop!” she cries, assuring you that this is no exaggeration. “So I stood there, nodding my head up and down and smiling this totally fake smile. But really I just wanted to disappear.”

As she raises her head and looks into your eyes, red but no longer full of tears, you realize that she’s finally feeling less overwhelmed and now needs your counsel.

“How could I have been so stupid?” she asks.

Because each person manages disappointments differently, the comfort that you provide your daughter or son will be based on your own past experiences and your unique relationship with your child. This is critical to guiding your response. You need to hear and respond caringly. Keep in mind that growth from these experiences of crushes shapes their understanding of realistic relationships. Your response—when done well—will instill in your child the confidence that you can help and understand real relationships.

So, let’s now consider some specific questions:

Are Crushes Common?

Yes. Very. In fact, most people have crushes—both boys and girls. In fact, although popular impressions suggest that teenage boys are more interested in “friends with benefits,” recent studies reveal this to be a fallacy. Yes, boys are reluctant to show their emotions—and when they do, they tend not to do it well—but boys may actually be the greatest romantics. While it may not be any consolation that everyone experiences this pain at one point or another, at least this information will give your child confidence. It helps to know that everyone goes through it and survives.

The extent to which we invest and experience joy in a relationship with another person, regardless of whether the relationship is one-sided, will determine the natural counterpart of emotions and sorrow at its loss.

“Will My Pain Ever Go Away?”

As the objects of crushes vary, so too does their length of duration. Perhaps the silver lining to crushes is that though they may last a while, you often get over them before too long. In the story of the daughter who is “crushed,” she had been interested in Gary for a while, but not a terribly long time. Be aware, however, that anxiety from a loss or perceived loss can become overwhelming and may even require professional assistance.

Should Crushes Be Taken Seriously?

Sometimes crushes go on for a long time and may include people who are very distant and out of relational range, such as a professional athlete or a television personality. Because crushes usually involve investing emotions in someone without being grounded in reality— or an actual relationship with another person—they are sometimes called infatuations, meaning a relationship “in fantasy.” This does not, however, mean that they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Crushes are a means of introducing youngsters to their feelings— like attraction—that are part of every healthy relationship and to understanding the necessity of reciprocity in real relationships. All of these factors make it necessary to be kind and supportive about your

What If Someone Has an Unreciprocated Crush on Your Child?

If someone has a crush on your child and your child is not especially interested, your child may not know what to do. It’s helpful for your child to develop empathy early. Guide your child to place himself or herself in the shoes of the other person, and then describe what a sensitive, positive response would be. Learning how to be respectful and sensitive to another’s feelings is a valuable lesson by which to live. This lesson of empathy is yet another way that crushes are excellent learning experiences. While your children shouldn’t encourage the feelings of another if they are not interested in developing a relationship, responding politely and being a good friend is a way to potentially smooth things out. It may be helpful for kids to discuss their feelings about the relationship with the person who has a crush on them. However, when someone has strong feelings, logic is not always the best solution. Sometimes the best approach is for your kids to just keep their distance to give the person with a crush a chance to cool off.

To sum it up, crushes are intense emotional feelings driven by the physical, psychological, and social changes when growing up. They require direction and guidance—steps for moving from feelings and desires within one’s own self to maintaining mutual, caring relationships with another.

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.com and www.sexual problems.com.

John Chirban, Ph.D, Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School.

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