You know the dreaded signs.

Hearts doodled all over notebooks…

Kids giggling as they’re glued to their phones, texting furiously…

Boys puffed up with pride and girls smiling broadly as they sit next to each other…

It’s puppy love. And it’s inevitable that it’s hit your youth bad.

I’m not old enough that I can’t remember what it felt like to be a middle schooler “in love”. It’s exciting and fun and usually innocent. It’s that magical time when the boys who have been annoying you for the entirety of grade school suddenly change into young men right in front of you–and while they’re still throwing Oreos at each others’ faces during lunch, they’re so much more intriguing.

Young love. Sigh.

Let’s get real, though, and talk about what happens when your middle school kids are going through the phase of becoming interested in the opposite sex. It’s a confusing yet exciting time for them, and it can seem just as tricky to navigate as a youth leader. Do you address it? What do you say? What happens if kids in your youth group start dating–or when a “couple” breaks up?

While I’ve heard all sorts of things from students’ mouths about dating and relationships, it may be surprising to know just how consumed they are by this topic in middle school. In my experience, it’s probably the topic youth want to talk about the most, when they’re confiding in my co-leaders or me. Ironically, this topic that they want to talk about most is usually the one they’re most terrified to bring up in conversation.

And the things they’re asking about? They range from sweet and romantic to shockingly knowledgeable beyond their years.

It’s not the easiest field to navigate, unfortunately. While I believe that families should be the first place students go to ask questions about dating and intimacy, I know that many youth don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents about these subjects. Thus, we as youth leaders feel pitted against parents, in a sense–we’re helping guide their children through a topic that we want to be discussed at home, but our youth clam up at the thought of discussing these “mortifying” topics with their moms or dads so we’re stuck doing the best we can to explain it without taking the role of their parents.

I’ve led Bible studies where the topic of purity, relationships and love have come up and kids have thoughtfully absorbed everything they could on the subject for hours. On one particular occasion, I was driving my car full of middle school girls to a petting zoo, and they became so entranced with discussing love that they refused to get out of the car and go to the petting zoo at all–they wanted to keep talking as long as they could.

The reality is that God wired us for relationships with others, and it’s a desire that we all feel. It’s natural for our middle school students to become interested in the opposite sex, to start to realize sexual desires and attempt to understand what love is. It’s part of the process of becoming young adults. It’s not something we need to ignore, mock or abhor–it’s a part of life that we all go through.

As youth leaders, we serve our students well when we can discuss the topics of love, purity and relationships biblically in a safe and open way. It’s also wise to continually remind our middle schoolers of what Song of Songs cautions over and over again: “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (Song of Songs 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4). It’s a message they don’t hear from the rest of the world, but it’s the truth that they so desperately need in order to counteract the clamoring of our sex-obsessed culture.

So what, then, do you do when your youth are dating? Do you interfere? Do you make an issue of it? Do you ask questions or give advice? Do you stay out of it completely? Do you cozy up to their significant other, or ignore them?

While every youth leader needs to make these decisions on his or her own, carefully regarding their own youth and their personal relationships with these teens, I do believe there are some overarching principles to keep in mind when it comes to the tricky subject of handling your teens who are dating.

First of all, remember that middle school students are intrinsically self-focused and insecure. Everything is a big deal to them, and they are hyperaware of being embarrassed. Drawing unnecessary attention to a middle school student is never good–even if it’s a seemingly confident kid. Make a big deal out of them dating or having a crush and it’s almost a sure thing that you’ll mortify them.

Second, remember that they’re still maturing. They’re changing rapidly, and their brains aren’t fully formed. While they are capable of thinking abstractly and reasoning, those mental capacities aren’t yet finalized. We often forget that our teens aren’t quite adults yet–and that they still need adults to guide them. They still listen to us…even when it sometimes seems like they aren’t.

Third, remember that youth tend to make a big deal out of relationships at this age. The reality is, most of our youth are going to go through a little (or maybe a lot!) of heartbreak before they eventually settle down into a stable relationship. When you, as their leader, can stay objective about their crushes and romances, it gives them a safe person to talk to when the stormy drama of their partner breaks over them like an ocean wave.

Perhaps most importantly, we as youth leaders can continue to calmly share the endless love of Jesus Christ with our youth even when they’re in the throes of romance. In the face of feckless and frail human love, Christ’s incomprehensible and unending passion for us is overwhelming.

Despite the shortcomings that we all face in relationships–and the disappointment and hurt that causes us–we are firmly anchored in the Almighty Father. His love never disappoints, runs out, or lets us down. And it’s this message that we’re privileged to share with our middle schoolers, as they inevitably face the frustration of human relationships.

And I suppose that love would be something to doodle all over your notebooks, friends…