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Child Development & Parenting: Middle (8-11)
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Child & Adolescent Development: Puberty

Romantic Crushes and Questions about Sex

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

In early middle-childhood, children typically begin to develop closer, more intimate friendships with same-sex peers than was previously the case. By the later part of this developmental stage, many children will begin to develop romantic "crushes", focused variously upon members of the opposite sex or same sex depending on children's sexual orientation. Parents should not be surprised if school-aged children come home saying that they have a "boyfriend" or a "girlfriend." Normally, such crushes are short-lived flirtations and nothing for parents to worry about. However, once it is clear that children are starting to develop romantic attachments, it is a good idea to set up and discuss rules for how the family will handle potential social complications that may arise as a result of this interest. Children need clear guidelines about telephone use, text and computer messaging, parties, and other social situations where romantic interests may be present. Parents should also know that some crushes, particularly those which are unrequited, or which end suddenly in dramatic rejection, can be very painful indeed for children to endure. Parents should be watchful for signs that might indicate their child's broken heart and take steps to provide comfort as best they can.

two hearts linkedSetting aside the issue of broken hearts, the predominant development that flows from children's developing romantic attachment is their interest in becoming sexual. Children need to be educated concerning their sexuality; its potential joys but also the terrible life-changing consequences that can come from careless sexual practice and how to prevent those consequences from occurring. Ideally, they need to learn this information early, before their peers pass on inaccurate or incomplete information. Parents who develop and maintain open lines of communication with their children while they are young can expect to find it easier to discuss difficult topics like sex and relationships later when children become adolescents and their romantic and sexual interests truly bloom.

School-aged children often begin asking questions about sex, how babies are made, and the meaning of the changes they are physically undergoing as they near and enter puberty. This can happen with children as young as age 10! At this time, it is appropriate and important to educate children about sexual topics including puberty, sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and intercourse and other forms of sexual activity. Parents may wish to avoid having this conversation with their children, but it is unwise for them to do so. Today's youth are becoming sexually active earlier and earlier, and often get their "facts" about sex from the media and their poorly-informed peers. It is trivially easy for them to gain access to sexually explicit pornographic images via the Internet. If parents do not take responsibility for educating their children regarding these matters, their peers and the world will do it for them, in ways that parents are not likely to appreciate.

As sexuality is a very emotionally charged topic, different families will have different ideas about what children need to know about sexuality. In our opinion, however, there are some general concepts that school-aged children need to know.

First and foremost, children need to be taught about their own anatomy (e.g., their reproductive body parts). Children should learn the proper names for their body parts (e.g., "penis", "vagina") and understand how each part functions with regard to reproduction. For instance, early in this stage, parents can teach children that girls have a uterus, and it is inside this uterus that a baby will grow if and when the girl becomes pregnant.

Because most children will be entering into puberty by the end of middle-childhood, they also need to understand how the puberty process will change their bodies. As a result, families need to discuss topics like first menstrual periods and nocturnal emissions (e.g., "wet dreams"), the growth of breasts, body hair, increased body hair, etc. Children need to understand that these changes are perfectly normal and healthy and nothing to become frightened about. For more information, please refer to our Puberty article where you will find detailed information about how to explain puberty to school-aged children.