HomeHealth & BehaviorEmotional Well-Being

Matters of the (young) heart

Love at first sight. Crushed crushes. From preschool to puberty, here's how to help with your child’s heartthrobs and heartaches.

By Jessica Kelmon

Aiden* insists on sitting by Sophia*, and won’t let anyone else play with her. He told her he wants to fly her to Paris. When he draws pictures of them together, he draws one person. “We are one,” he says.

“He’s obsessed,” says his teacher, Susie Siegel, a kindergarten teacher who has observed kinder crushes for the past 20 years. One recent student drew a picture of her five best friends and herself — three boys, three girls — and declared that they’re all getting married. “Even at this age, they’re very possessive,” Siegel explains — but profoundly genuine, which is why she constantly hears her kindergartners telling each other they “love” them.

So what’s a parent to do when their young child declares that she and Jackson are getting hitched? How serious must we be about every cupid’s arrow that grazes our child’s heart?

Some experts suggest parents not feed the flames with added drama. Julia Whitt, an experienced kindergarten teacher, sees kids develop crushes regularly. She lets her students know that it’s great that they love each other, but that there’s no dating in kindergarten. To further, and clearly, temper the passion she adds: “And we don’t kiss at school, either.”

Others suggest that parents take advantage of young love to help develop kids’ social and emotional skills. “Children do form attachments early on to people they find like-minded,” says Marissa Gehley, a retired elementary school teacher and middle school counselor. “Those early, very simple connections mimic how we form relationships later on.” So take the opportunity to help your child start to articulate deeper thoughts and feelings. Ask, “Why is Emma so special?” and “What do you like about her?”

When affections go unrequited, ask your child what they like about their crush, says Gehley, then ask what other children have those same qualities. “They begin to make connections,” she says. “It builds skills by looking for what we like, not for what we don’t like.”

Talking to your child about their friend choices early can pave the way for conversations about romantic feelings later on. Gehley recommends approaching the conversation with a certain equanimity: "You don’t want to close doors with, ‘You’re too young, don’t be silly,’ because kids take these things hard. But you don’t want to go over the top with over exuberance, ‘Tell me everything!’ either."

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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. "