My daughter was 11 when she went to her first school dance. I put on a brave face as she got out of the car in her polka-dot dress (with a denim jacket for her signature swagger). "Have fun," I said, trying to sound airy.
But what I really wanted to say as she disappeared into the crowd of sixth-grade bravado was, "Wait—come back!" She still seemed too young for a middle-school mixer and the awkwardness that accompanied it. I thought about my first dance: standing alone in a corner, not moving, desperately waiting for him to notice me. How did I get from there to dropping off my own daughter at the doorstep of romance? And was there a way to make those girl-meets-boy dramas any less heart crushing?
Experts say parents can't do much to protect kids from the bumps and bruises of first crushes beyond keeping the lines of communication open and offering comfort. That's no simple task—kids seem to leapfrog from sweet curiosity about the opposite gender to demanding to know when they're allowed to date to holding hands, kissing and more.
"Between the ages of 10 and 13, kids start having crushes and thinking about sexuality and romance, however they envision it," says Marilyn Benoit, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Villanova, Pennsylvania. "Biologically, it's what their bodies are telling them to do—they're in the early stages of puberty. And socially, it's when they learn to negotiate relationships." But there's some good news for mom and dad: Tweens still want to talk to their parents. They value their opinions and rely on them for advice. That's why it's so important to use these years to get closer to your kids while laying the groundwork for healthy relationships during adolescence and beyond, says Benoit. These key tips will keep everyone on the same page.