Just when we parents become fairly adept at helping our offspring deal with run-of-the-mill childhood disappointments — a missed birthday party, a scraped knee — we find ourselves trying to help a 13-year-old negotiate the crashing waves of heartbreak and grief caused from the loss of a first love.
Breaking up is difficult at any age, but it can seem like the end of the world for teenagers, who will replay events and question what they did wrong for weeks and sometimes months after a breakup.
Since teens are notoriously spotty and reluctant communicators, trying to talk about a broken heart can be a real minefield for a parent. “Do give your child space ... remember just because your child is not talking about it doesn’t mean they’re not hurting,” says Laurie Kanyer of Yakima, a certified family life educator and author.
Kanyer also says it’s also important for parents to realize that for teens, the amount of pain they feel over a breakup doesn’t necessarily relate to how long the relationship lasted. She recommends avoiding saying anything negative about the ex, and reminding children that they’re still capable of functioning while they’re hurting.
It’s also important for teens to know that their parents recognize and validate their grief. Practice reflective listening (“it sounds like you’re feeling a lot of pain right now,”) so your teen understands that he or she has been heard. Try doing some small things to boost his spirits and keep him occupied, like offering to take him to a movie or asking for his help cooking a meal. Teens need reassuring, cheerful companionship much more than they need a lecture about how they “should be over it already.”
One of the best ways to keep the lines of communication open with older children is to schedule your home life so there is a regular time when your children know you’re available. That’s a real challenge when you’re picking up kids at basketball practice, trying to make dinner, and helping a younger child with math homework every evening … but maintaining a reassuring presence is very important for parents of teenagers, Kayner says. It’s vital for a teen not only to know that the door is open, but when that door is open.
Teens often suffer a big drop in self-esteem after a breakup, and they’ll need Mom and Dad to reassure them of their self-worth. Local parent Shellie Carroll had a great idea about supporting a teen going through a rough time — she suggests leaving your child small positive notes that only she can find (like under her pillow) that say things like: “You’re strong and beautiful.” Even if your child doesn’t mention reading the note, you’ll both know the message got across, she says.
And as much as you would like to shield your child from disappointment and loss, remind yourself that breakups are actually a good thing. Your teen will have many relationships (both platonic and romantic), and he’ll need to make mistakes in order to find out what works and what doesn’t work for him. “Recognize that most people will have their heart broken in a lifetime, and this helps people gain strength,” Kanyer says.
Don’t be afraid to seek out professional help if your child is exhibiting behaviors that concern you. “Changes in eating, sleeping or drop in grades can be a sign they need some additional support,” Kanyer says. She also recommends watching for “acting out” behaviors. “It’s common for people who are hurting to ‘take it out’ on those closest to them, such as family members. Don’t let your feelings get hurt if they say or do hurtful things, (but) remind them to respect you while they’re feelings sad,” she says.
One of the most bittersweet things about being a parent is that by the time we have teenagers, we’ve forgotten a lot about what it’s like to be one. It’s hard to remember just how crummy teenage heartbreak feels — they don’t call it a “crush” for nothing — so try not to play down or diminish what your child going through, and try not to feel rejected if she doesn’t confide in you. Just remember that your teen is still depending on you to be there for her when she needs it.