HomeHealth & BehaviorEmotional Well-Being

Matters of the (young) heart

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By Jessica Kelmon

Tween and teen turmoil

Does all this change once adolescence hits? Yes and no. When hormones kick in, crushes can become all-consuming. “Few students actually have ‘relationships’ at this age, [but] most kids have crushes,” explains Sue Porter, a school counselor and sexuality educator. “Being in a relationship is generally viewed by peers as a positive and enviable thing… at the very least, it’s attention grabbing.”

Porter says that how kids display their attractions depends a lot on the school culture and on the individual child. Some kids may be happy just having someone to text with, but, she warns, “Nothing takes the place of physical contact — and that’s certainly the goal, especially for boys.”

For this reason experts stress that it’s crucial for parents to discuss feelings and appropriate behavior with their tweens. The experience for your child may have changed since their first kindergarten crush, but parents should focus on the same goal: keep lines of communication open. Still, the same conversation starters may not work. Porter cautions against bombarding your tween with a slew of questions. “This strategy works with young kids,” she says, “but parents need to adapt their parenting style as their children enter adolescence.” Back off a little, and kids are likely to come to you, she says. When they do, steer clear of, “When I was your age …” stories.

Getting over heartbreak

In the face of unrequited love or heartbreak, parents should remain sympathetic, but not overly emotional. Letting kids have their feelings, mirroring their sentiments, and even trying to redirect them are all strategies that can work, says Porter, as long as parents don’t deny their child’s experience or belittle them. What doesn’t work, she says, is trying to “fix” it or rationalize the problem away. Something to the tune of, “I’m sorry you’re feeling sad, honey. It sounds liked this is really hard for you,” is likely to work — though your adolescent’s reaction may be pointed, irritated, or dismissive.

Help guide your child towards the future: Who else is your child’s friend at school? Who else can your child sit next to at lunch? “You’re helping them work through the next steps,” Gehley says. “It’s a passage that we want kids to become familiar with...and try to normalize it a little bit.”

Through all the pain, aim to stay positive. “‘Well, I never liked that girl,’ or ‘It doesn’t matter, you’re only 12,’” are unhelpful sentiments, Porter says, because they don’t address the fact that your child feels awful.

Relationships in 120 characters or less

Long gone are the days when mom and dad could eavesdrop on kid’s phone calls. “Now, it’s on 58 texts,” Gehley says. And with shorter messages, context gets dropped and miscommunication proliferates. In these cases, says Gehley, it’s crucial that parents help kids identify what was said — and what’s gone unsaid. “Answers are shortened to yes, no, and happy or sad faces,” Gehley says. “So it’s more important than ever to ask [your child] questions that require a little critical thinking to answer.”

Thanks to digital tools, when things go wrong, they go wrong for the whole world to watch. “There can be complete devastation there,” Gehley says, recommending that parent help kids learn to "act a little" and put on a brave face.

Guiding your child toward positive public reactions is crucial, Gehley says. In the digital world, this means keeping Facebook posts, texts, and tweets positive. This may not be easy, especially because privacy is anathema to this generation. If your child is very angry and inclined to lash out over social media, have him write it on a piece of paper – then shred the paper. In the long run, a friendship may be salvaged, and your child’s online presence remains positive.

*Child's name has been changed.

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Comments from readers

"My son will soon be 6yo. Currently he is a Kinder kid. At 3, a girl fell in love with him and made announcement in the class and to her parents. I thought it was very sweet and lovely. My son just announced that he is in love with a girl in his class yesterday, I told him that was lovely. Behind his back, I was very nervous and discussed this matter with my husband, he said, it's natural and normal and we should calmly let it be. This article is very helpful for me to know that kids' emotion affection are normal part of growing up. "
"As a mom of a 15 y/o boy who recently went through a heartbreak, I found this article particularly helpful in understanding the right things to say. "
"I responded to the last essay on STRESS and pointed out that eliminating stress was foolish as it did not prepare students doe real life. Here is a perfect example of a well thought out article that is dealing with the types of things that cause stress: unrequited love. People who though the stress article was right on should read my commentary and connect the dots. We don't eliminate stress-we manage and control it and learn how to cope. That is real. That is life-just like love. "