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They call it puppy love

Twelve-year-old Jason was in trouble with his teachers because he gave Claire, his classmate, a rough push. In return, Claire made rude comments about his hair and clothes.

Gulf News

Twelve-year-old Jason was in trouble with his teachers because he gave Claire, his classmate, a rough push. In return, Claire made rude comments about his hair and clothes.

"So, what's going on here?" asked their parents. "Why are these kids picking on each other?" It took a discerning teacher to point out that Jason probably has a crush on Claire, and that it was his clumsy way of showing he likes her!

"It's puppy love, and helps prepare youngsters for the real thing," said Jason's teacher. Preteen crushes are hard to understand. Young romance is like a roller coaster ride and it's difficult for parents to acknowledge that their 'little' ones are beginning to develop such feelings.

Feelings of attraction for the opposite sex can be confusing and painfully embarrassing. Kids can be teased mercilessly by their peers simply because they sat next to each other on the bus during a school trip, or, if they accidentally touched each other's arm in the cafeteria.

Experts point out that puppy love is a dress rehearsal for the real thing, and youngsters need help managing their emotions during puberty. Since girls hit puberty before boys, and they tend to be more relationship-oriented, it is somewhat natural that they take the lead in this area.

Boys are more mystified about girls, and hesitant in their approach. If a preteen boy and girl actually do get to the stage where they admit an interest in each other, they would probably prefer to hang out together in the safety of a group, rather than as a pair.

Child expert Beth Levine points out that "Comfort is also the reason many unobtainable celebrities such as Ricky Martin and Britney Spears are the objects of first crushes". It's a way of exploring relationships without risk.

Preteens can fantasise about their favourite movie star or singer, safe in the knowledge that she is not really going to step down from the poster on the bedroom wall.

Instead of panicking, parents need to follow these tips

Don't overreact, remain neutral:

If you find your preteen is drawing hearts in her notebook, or making blank calls to a friend of the opposite sex, don't make too much of it. But do sit up and take notice. You may want to discuss her interest casually, focusing on how she can find ways to include the object of her crush in a group activity.

Be prepared for a vehement denial:

Getting angry and yelling, "I read what you wrote to Ben" may only fan the fire and push your child deeper into a relationship she is not ready for. Talk about the qualities she should look for in relationships in the larger picture.

Don't ridicule your child:

Don't laugh at your child's crush or make fun of the object of his attraction. Don't say, "how silly, you are only 11" or "but how come you like Marie, she is such a loser!" because what your child is feeling is real to him.

If you make fun of his feelings, he will stop confiding in you and this may have disastrous consequences later when he is in his teens. Warn younger or older siblings not to make hurtful jokes which can cause your preteenager to withdraw further into himself.

Help your child cope with rejection:

Be around to meet his needs when he is rejected (which is bound to happen!) by sharing stories from your childhood. Teach your child that just because one person has rejected him doesn't mean he is worthless. These are hard lessons to learn and your compassion and sympathy will count a lot.

If another child has a crush on your child, and he is not interested, teach him how to break the news without being mean. Most preteenagers resort to vicious name calling (and sending hate mail) but this is sometimes a cover-up because they feel uncomfortable and embarrassed about their friends finding out.

Rehearse with your child some tactful lines he could say, for example, "I'm really flattered you like me but I am not interested" instead of telling his friends, "I wouldn't be seen dead with her!"

Make realistic rules:

Puppy love is usually harmless but its best not to allow your preteen to get involved in one-on-one dating. Kids in the age range of 11 to 13 are just not ready to deal with the pressure of being alone with the opposite sex.

Also, if the object of your child's crush is much older, slam down hard with the brakes. There is a big difference between what a 13-year-old and a 16-year-old are looking for in a romance. Don't hesitate to say, "There are a lot of things you can't do until you're older".