Ah, Valentine’s Day. While some adults now see the holiday as a glorified excuse to spend far too much money on dinner, candies and gifts, kids tend to be a lot less cynical. For them, the day isn’t a commercialized waste; it’s a chance to forge meaningful relationships and gorge on candy (RIP conversation hearts). But for every child who giddily opens a valentine from a crush, there’s bound to be another whose heart breaks as they discover that Cupid’s arrow missed them this year. So how do you help a child through their first crush — and even their first heartbreak?
Crushes and crushed hearts are of course a natural part of kids’ development, but that doesn’t make them any more comfortable for kids — or their parents — to navigate. Thankfully, a few experts offered some advice to SheKnows about how to best handle the excitement and disappointment of childhood love.
Do: Talk & listen to your kids on a regular basis
It may seem that the last thing your kid wants to do is talk to you about their crushes. After all, how open were you with your parents when you were their age? But engaging in daily dialogue about your kids’ lives and giving them genuine compliments consistently may make them feel more open to sharing more vulnerable subjects with you, says licensed professional counselor Brandi Lewis of Reach Counseling Solutions.
“It helps to remember that your voice or outward validation can become the teen’s inner voice,” Lewis tells SheKnows.
The more kids hear they are smart, capable and worthy, the more likely they are to feel confident and independent. These traits will help as they develop their first (or 20th) crushes and start to question whether they’re “enough.” The more self-assured kids are, the less likely it is they’ll seek total validation from both their crush and their peers.
Additionally, Lewis says that parents should “remind teens that their self-worth isn’t tied to the number of likes or views they get on social media.” Doing so could help maintain their self-esteem if their crushes don’t reciprocate their feelings or in the case of a breakup.
Plus, you may learn some cool, non-crush-related things about your kids and grow closer to them in the process.
Don’t: Dominate the conversation with your personal experiences or an agenda
Let’s face it; parents tend to be a bit protective of their children. It’s instinctual to want to shield kids from uncomfortable feelings like heartbreak. Unfortunately, experiencing the emotional turmoil of love — the joy, the sadness and every emotion in between — is something kids have to endure themselves so they can grow. As such, it’s crucial that parents don’t begin conversations by offering unsolicited advice.
“My No. 1 advice for parents when talking to their kids about love and loss is first to listen,” licensed certified clinical social worker Katie Austin tells SheKnows. “So often as parents, we go into conversations with our kids with a preconceived agenda — ‘I don’t want you to date them,’ ‘You’re better off without them,’ etc. We listen to them with the intention of imposing or sharing our own agenda and really miss what they are saying. Listening first is a powerful tool.”
And yes, that means you should ditch the statement, “You’re not dating until you’re 47,” entirely.
Lewis also recommends that parents avoid overused clichés as much as possible — especially when it comes to heartache.
“Don’t minimize the teen’s experience by saying statements like, ‘There’s plenty of fish in the sea’ or ‘There will be other guys or girls,'” Lewis says. “…[T]eens often dismiss this type of advice as if you don’t understand where they are coming from. Instead, offer to listen and validate their experience by reminding them that you are there to listen.”
Oh, and as tempting as it may be to tell your kids about the one time so-and-so from junior high smashed your heart into a million pieces, don’t. Lewis says these kinds of anecdotes can also seem dismissive and ingenuine.
Do: Validate your child’s experiences & feelings
Is your kid’s life literally over because their crush doesn’t like them back? Of course not. You know they’ll go on to have many crushes and breakups, which will all help shape them into the vibrant, layered human being they’re destined to be. But they may not know that yet, and it’s important to let them experience their emotions.
“Validate how your child is feeling,” Austin says. “Even if we know this is just a silly crush or that they are ‘better off,’ don’t dismiss how they are feeling.”
Clinical therapist Lynn R. Zakeri agrees that parents should take their children’s feelings seriously. Blowing off your kid’s emotions can cause them to think things like, “My parents don’t understand,” or to second-guess their emotional and mental health, while what they really need is to go through the less-than-pleasant stuff, she adds.
“They will go through the process of grief, denial, anger and all, but then they will be stronger, more resilient and a better partner for their next relationship,” Zakeri tells SheKnows.
At this point, you’re probably dying to offer up your own two cents. Before you do, Austin suggests asking kids if they are open to hearing your thoughts.
“If they say no, respect that,” she says. “If they say yes, then use that as an opportunity to discuss their relationship; don’t talk about yours. I would recommend using that time to talk about what a healthy relationship looks like, ways to set healthy boundaries and the importance of consent.”
And that doesn’t just apply to heartbreak. This advice is still applicable to talking about your child’s crushes. Remember: Many kids are nervous about these new feelings and are probably as timid discussing them as you are. That’s OK! The primary goal should be to make sure children feel supported, validated and loved as they figure out this often confusing chapter in their lives.
Don’t: Get overly involved
During a time when social media pages are so easily accessible, it may be tempting to do a little snooping. Don’t. Doing so will likely only make your children feel that you don’t respect their boundaries.
Also, it’s best if you refrain from inserting yourself into the equation by scheming to create the perfect meet-cute, coordinating with the crush’s parents or planning dates. Leave the teenage matchmaking to John Hughes.
It is OK, though, to show a genuine interest in their crush by asking appropriate questions, like, “How did you two meet?” and “What are some of the things you have in common?” It’s also reasonable to have conversations with your kids about consent and sexual health.
Do: Find a positive spin when heartbreak (inevitably) happens
So, you’ve listened and validated. Now what? According to Zakeri, parents should also remind kids that the sad emotions they’re experiencing are reasonable and actually healthy.
“When my clients come to me sobbing, devastated and heartbroken, I tell them… [that] having your heart broken means they cared, they were vulnerable, they took risks and they were all worth it,” Zakeri says. “They learned about themselves; they grew, they evolved, they trusted — both someone else and themselves… Getting stuck in the loneliness and the self-blame can be debilitating. Seeing a way out of there, rebuilding and learning to trust again is empowering!”
Zakeri says you can also encourage kids to view each relationship as a learning experience.
Relationships are “an opportunity to practice for future relationships and to have the hindsight reflection about what worked and what didn’t and how to improve for next time,” she adds.
Will conversations about love and loss be easy? Probably not. But hopefully, with time, you and your kids will feel more comfortable talking to and learning from each other.