D., an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Parents can unintentionally oversexualize the situation while undercutting healthy feelings.
"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.
"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." For many adults who grew up with heat doodles and do-you-like-me-check-yes-or-no notes in middle school, watching their kids hook up and break up via Facebook, Twitter and text feels not only alien but scary, because it's often unsupervised.
Try to institute ground rules about "romantic" interaction early on, even before there's any curiosity.
"Of course, the message may be different for each family based on their culture and dynamic," says Fran Harding, director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services center, which tracks teen behavior.
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). But what I really wanted to say as she disappeared into the crowd of sixth-grade bravado was, "Wait—come back!
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.
"Tweens aren't usually that interested in sex itself," says Miller. 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.