Dealing with the Sad Side of First Love
Rejection is painful and real. No matter your age, it can sting. “Learning how to cope with hurt is part of growing up,” Dr. Saltz says. “But it is part of the human experience and not dangerous unless done in a particularly cruel or abusive way. Parents need to teach kids how to end a relationship with empathy and kindness.” Set limits on cruel behavior if your child is the one ending the relationship, she says.
Sometimes it is a crushing experience. Some kids find their interest and affection goes completely ignored. “A crush can have healthy boundaries or range into the extremes,” Dr. Serani says. “It’s all well and good when a child crushes on another and there’s an unspoken permission that comes with it. Each child enjoys the aspects of the crush. Trouble stirs when the adoration isn’t reciprocated by the crushee but is still wanted by the crusher.” A small child will not curl up on a chair and stare hopelessly out of a window, but keep an eye on behavior.
Help your child through disappointments. No one wants their kids to need a couple’s counselor before fourth grade but they may need emotional support. “It can be very difficult because kids have no experience to base their feelings on,” Fox says. “Be sensitive to raw feelings but encourage that it does fade away. If one is more invested than the other it is usually partly infatuation and romantic ideation. Again, discuss it, but redirect your child to interact with peers and regular activities as they sort through the feelings.”
View Affection Through a Different Lens
Teach kids how to show affection. Kisses that demonstrate love and tenderness between family members are not recommended for first loves. “Young children see kisses modelled by parents and other loved ones as signs of affection and a symbol of caring,” says Laura Paret, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist with Union Square Practice in Manhattan. “It follows that these same youngsters might use a little peck on the playground at preschool or at a playdate to mean: ‘I like you!’” She suggests explaining that verbal expression may be the best way to share feelings outside the home because a kiss may be perceived as an invasion of personal space.
When a kiss is a just a kiss. The meaning of a kiss changes as kids age out of the nursery to second grade age groups. “Older children about 8 years old and older have a more abstract understanding of what a kiss means and how it can be used to express romantic intentions, as compared to much younger children who use touch, such as hugs and kisses, more dominantly as their ‘language of love’ than verbal expression toward all others,” Dr. Paret says. Teach older children that touch must be appropriate and welcome between both parties, and let them know ways in which it may be unwelcome.
Keep an eye on things as they develop. Kids need to be supervised, but parents should try to worry less. “Kids don’t really express worries, but parents do,” Fox says. “It is unsettling for parents of young children because they assign sexuality to the relationship that the kids don’t. Best advice is to let the kids play and be friends but watch as they get older that they aren’t playing ‘doctor’ or going into rooms alone. Touching and exploring begins around 10.”
Establish Trust for the Tween and Teenage Years
At some point your little ones will grow, hormones will kick in, and romance and sexuality will be a natural part of their interests. How you handle early crushes can help establish a sense of trust for those tween and teen years, says Jody Ripplinger, MA LMHC-P, a psychotherapist at Manhattan’s Citron Hennessey Private Therapy and a Brooklyn mom of three.
The best strategy is to listen to your children. “If my 10-year-old daughter came to me to say she was in love, I would first of all become really curious about the who, what, when, and where of her experience, especially listening for what ‘being in love’ means to her,” Ripplinger says. She admits her next impulse would be to give advice: “You’re too young to be in love!” This is a completely normal reaction from any parent. But, she says, if you pull back and try to assess what kids really need and honor their feelings, you have a much greater chance of gaining their trust down the line when the stakes are higher.
Main photo: Veron, the Fan Favorite Finalist from our 2015 Cover Contest, shows us how a real gentleman does Valentine’s Day.