We all remember our first big crush. Maybe it was the boy or girl in your class, or Brad Pitt. As parents and caregivers, it’s important to understand what’s actually happening when children and tweens start to experience crushes. When puberty hits, hormones affect thoughts and feelings. Kids begin to think about the qualities they like and value in other people – qualities they might want in a partner someday. ‘It’s like you’re taking your feelings for a test run,’ Cathy, one of our educators here at SEA, explains. ‘These feelings are normal, and can be exciting, overwhelming and confusing all at the same time. You’re also working out the rules of confidentiality, privacy, consent, and personal boundaries. These feelings are real and should always be treated with respect.’
What are crushes?
A crush is when a person starts to like another person in a way that’s different to a friend. They think about them a lot, find them attractive, want to spend time with them, and admire certain qualities they have. They may even think they’re ‘in love’ with that person. Some last a short time and some a long time. People don’t choose their crushes, and sometimes they sneak up on you as you think about certain people in new ways. A crush could be on someone your child knows, e.g. a classmate, friend, or someone in their sports club. Or they may have a crush on a person they don’t know and are never likely to meet, such as a sports star, an actor, or a singer.
As parents, it’s important we don’t laugh off our children’s crushes or dismiss them. They’re deeply felt feelings and emotions. But at the same time, we shouldn’t be over the top. Some parents might feel uncomfortable about the crush and may want to shut down any discussion about the topic, but this could make them feel embarrassed, confused or ashamed. If you can, stay neutral when talking. Explain that these feelings can be exciting, and that they might pass quickly or go on for a while. Ask what your child likes about the person and how they feel when they’re around them; explore, but also try not to interrogate them. Importantly, as the adult, don’t tell others about it (e.g. friends or family). If a child confides in you that takes a huge amount of trust, and you don’t want to break it by having them see you gossiping about the crush to someone else.
Once crushes become commonplace, kids often feel pressure to have a crush on someone as friends quiz and try to pry private information out of others. It’s important to chat to your child about how some people don’t get crushes all the time or even at all – and that’s perfectly normal and nothing to worry about.
Let your child know that they don’t have to do anything about a crush or tell anyone about it; it’s okay for them to just sit with the crush and do nothing. Young people might assume that all crushes should lead to dating and sexual things. Of course, this often isn’t the case. If your child wants to ‘date’, explain that it can be tricky working out who you are, let alone someone else and how the two of you can work together; they might want to wait until they’re older. If they’re set on dating, just keep an eye on things and be there for guidance and support. Don’t let your adult brain jump too far ahead, it’s likely to just be holding hands or meeting at McDonald’s for a burger.
When kids get crushes on someone of the same sex, they often ask if it means they’re gay. Having a crush on a person of the opposite sex doesn’t necessarily mean someone is straight, just as having a crush on someone of the same sex might not make them gay either. For some, their early crushes will be a sign of who they’re attracted to for life, but for others they won’t be. Try not to worry about this or to define things too early, as placing labels can put unnecessary pressure on young people. Just let your child know that no matter who their crush is on, you’ll support them.
Having a crush means being vulnerable, and it can be hard on kids if the secret gets out or if the crush doesn’t like them back. As parents, we need to treat these feelings seriously. Rather than saying ‘get over it’, let your child know their feelings are real and it’s okay to be sad; rejection is difficult, but it’s part of life. Help them with coping strategies and suggest doing things they enjoy, as well as spending time with family and friends.
Alternatively, it can be overwhelming and intimidating for your child if someone likes them or gives them attention. It can also be hard to tell the person that they don’t like the attention, but it’s an important skill to learn. Practise with your child what they can say, such as, ‘I don’t feel good when you follow me around and choose to be my partner in class all the time. I’d really like some space.’ Tell them to be clear about how the person’s behaviour is making them feel. If they explain it to them and the person doesn’t stop, then they should talk to a trusted adult or the teacher.
If your child does have a crush on someone, whether it’s reciprocated or not, have a talk with them about being respectful of others’ space. Remind them not to be invasive with their crush or shower them with attention – especially if it makes someone else embarrassed, uncomfortable or unsafe. Don’t encourage them to write love letters or shower their crush with gifts.
Chatting with crushes online
Without being overly invasive, it’s good to keep an eye on your child to ensure there’s not too much time messaging online. We recommend a ‘no phones in the bedroom overnight’ rule, as this is when things quickly intensify (and we all know good decisions are rarely made in the dark of night).