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Young Love: Talking to Your Tween About Dating and Romance

2. Give them real answers, and not just about sex.

As soon as the topic of a possible boyfriend or girlfriend arises, many parents wonder what to discuss. While it's normal to want to protect your kids, experts suggest slowing down before charging into the condom lecture. "What your tween really wants to talk about are feelings—the way her heart beats faster when she thinks about seeing the boy at band practice, or how good it feels when he says hi," says Benoit.

Immediately steering the conversation toward sex ed does kids a real disservice, says Elizabeth Miller, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Parents can unintentionally oversexualize the situation while undercutting healthy feelings. "Tweens aren't usually that interested in sex itself," says Miller. Their questions are generally more innocent. They want to know how to approach someone they think is cute, not talk about STDs. Most likely, they're not even thinking about sex at all—but may get freaked out because you are." Let them guide the conversation, and listen carefully to what is really being asked.

If your child shares her feelings, be careful not to trivialize them. To a 13-year-old, a new rival for her crush's attention can be the worst thing ever. "Young love feels serious," says Lynn Ponton, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist in San Francisco. "Kids want someone to hear them out and help them make sense of what they're experiencing—not to tell them it'll be over by tomorrow."