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Are Six-Year-Old's Feelings More Than Platonic?

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: At what age do children start developing an attraction for the opposite sex? A few months ago, our six-year-old son began showing signs of wanting a certain girl to like him and be his friend. He's given me the impression that because she doesn't like him, he feels rejected and that he doesn't fit in. At this stage, it's hard to determine if he wants a more boyfriend/girlfriend-type relationship with her. I've talked to him about different kinds of relationships and tried asking if what he feels for her is like the love his daddy and I share. But it's hard for him to really know what I'm asking, and for me to tell from his responses just what this girl means to him.

I'm concerned that his feelings for her don't go any further than a platonic relationship. My six siblings were all parents at a very young age and unmarried when they had their children. I've seen what their choices have meant for their lives and the lives of their kids, and I don't want the same for my son. I'm trying to be open with him and encourage casual but meaningful dialogue about relationships, but I often don't know what to say and fear I might turn him off. I don't want to make too big a deal about his relationship with this girl, or any other. I want us to develop the right parent-child relationship now so we can have a healthy relationship in his adolescence, without all the stress associated with the parent-teenager gap. Any advice would be most helpful.

A: First, you must realize that your anxiety about your six-year-old son's wanting a special, close relationship with a girl his age is primarily informed by your fears that he will turn out like your siblings, who had kids when they were young and unmarried. You clearly don't like the lives they chose and you seem to analyze everything regarding your son's relationship with the opposite sex in terms of whether these interests will propel him into ending up like your siblings. Understanding how your longstanding feelings are really influencing your parenting is a necessity, if you are to comprehend why you're so worried now--or would be in the future--regarding your son's relationship with girls.

Your son is six and his interest in this girl is not infused with any hormone-induced attraction that may begin to occur in preadolescence. This may be a crush, which is entirely possible, normal, and even healthy for a six-year-old to have at this stage in his social and emotional development. This may also be an intense desire for a friendship with this particular child, who just happens to be a girl. The same desires for special relationships exist at same-sex levels as well.

The questions you've asked your son have revealed your nervousness and disapproval, even though you think you may have hidden your concerns from him. Asking him whether what he feels is like the love you and your husband share is inappropriate, for several reasons. Your son's emotional and intellectual development doesn't allow him to understand the complexities of adult love. Your comparison suggests a romantic, married framework that can only confuse him and make him feel misunderstood. He may also try to model his relationship with this girl on his parents' relationship. Of course, he can't have the same kind of feelings that you and his father share in your marriage, and you shouldn't raise further questions of this kind.

At this time, all I'd suggest are casual conversations where you introduce a simple, non-emotional question about how he and his friend are doing. He might feel like this relationship has been put under a microscope and not want to share much about it with you. However, he might want to talk with you because he enjoys this intense level of personal attention from you. I wouldn't dismiss his interest in having this special friendship, nor would I give it any inordinate focus. If you think there might be something obsessive or unhealthy about your son's feelings, you might want to call the girl's parents to see what they think. Lastly, be careful not to allow you son to internalize your worries about this issue, as this can lead to an even more generalized anxiety on his part about all social relationships with girls. Thanks for writing.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.


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