- It’s the quality of the relationship you have with your teen that will help you both navigate the good and the bad of teen relationships and breakups. Tweet This
- It is during these difficult times that the quality of your relationship with your teenager will be a significant influence on her well-being and resilience. Tweet This
- A breakup is typically devastating for a teen. But your teen will survive a first broken heart (and you will too!). Tweet This
Take yourself back to your first relationship. The absolute high. That feeling of walking on air, of being unable to focus on anything else. Counting down the days, hours, and even minutes until you could see your true love again.
Now, multiply that into today's teen trysts with a never-ending cacophony of texts, instant messages, snaps, dm's, and the constant connection facilitated by screens. Adolescent 'love' is intoxicating. Exciting. Beautiful. The very best thing in the Whole. Wide. World.
Until it isn’t.
A breakup is typically devastating for a teen. Studies show that teens feel emotions with enormous intensity relative to adults. The highs seem higher, and the lows, well, they're crushingly low.
Can you recall how absolutely devastated you felt when you realized your teen relationship was over? The pain! The tears! Feeling your heart break into pieces and just knowing you would never be happy again.
In addition to the heartbreak, there's also challenging fallout for today's teens:
- Your teen is likely to have been in a relationship with someone at school, who they'll now have to see every day.
- The relationship may have left your child with reputational damage, and social circles could require some tricky adjusting (if that's even possible).
- Content that has been shared online could now leave your child vulnerable to revenge attacks, sextortion, or simply humiliation and embarrassment.
Watching our children experience this heartache (and privately carry these burdens—or even trauma) is tremendously challenging for us as parents, especially when we can’t fix it for them! There’s no Band-Aid, no special treat, and no hug that will make it all better.
What You Can Do to Help
First, don’t try to fix it. It feels a little weak to say this, but there’s not much we can do or say in the immediate aftermath of a relationship rupture that will make things right for them. Healing from a relationship breakdown takes time and support.
It's helpful to recognize that when the relationship is over, your teenager will probably not want to talk with you about it. To them, you wouldn’t understand what they’re going through. In their mind, the breakup is unique and exquisitely painful in ways an old-fogey parent wouldn’t (or couldn't) comprehend.
A helpful line that some parents might want to try out is:
"I know that you're feeling awful about things right now. Do you want to talk or hug, or would you just like some space?"
This is a powerful way to connect with your child in a way that supports his/her psychological needs. You're showing that you see and hear and value your child and his emotional world. But you're also giving your teen autonomy. This sense of choice (and the fact it's coming from you) makes your teen feel capable. Moreover, it invites your child to pause, step back from her emotions, and consider what it is that she really needs right now.
Your teen needs you to be available to them in a non-controlling way. Whether with you or alone, this is a time for them to grieve and process the big, crushing emotions they are experiencing. It is during these difficult times that the quality of your relationship with your teenager will be a significant influence on her well-being and resilience.
Some ideas for connecting during this difficult time:
- Invite them to chat if they feel like it. Perhaps they’ll come out for a hot chocolate or ice cream with you—or just go for a walk. Keep them close.
- Watch a movie together. In fact, do anything together!
- Recognize the emotions they are feeling and reassure them that it’s normal. Label the emotion, validate it, and ask how you can help.
- Give them a little bit of slack in relation to chores and commitments. When you’re depressed, you probably don’t want to do anything either.
The Three Most Important Words
When parenting teens, our job is to offer connection at a time when they are feeling so very disconnected from the person they love(d). Sit with them, don’t try to stop the tears, and remind them of the three most important words that they can hear come from your mouth—and no, those words are not, "I love you."
It's true that these are critically important words. Your teen needs to hear them. But the words they most need to hear at this point are the three words that come next:
“No. Matter. What.”
It's possible that you'll discover that your child has been involved with an ex in a way that you are unhappy about. There is potential that you may find out things that are hard for a parent to hear. These three words are the words that are most critical right now.
It’s the quality of the relationship you have with your teen that will help you both navigate the good and the bad of teen relationships and breakups.
What Your Teen Doesn’t Need
Disapproval. Sometimes, we’ll be delighted that our teen's relationship with a crush has ended. We try to hide it, but we end up saying something like, "That kid was no good. In a few weeks, you'll be glad it's over."
Or we simply get annoyed at our teenager for being emotional. "Get over yourself. You're blowing things out of proportion. Stop being such a sook about it."
Dismissal. It can be natural for us, as parents, to try to wave away the pain our broken-hearted teen is feeling in the hope that it will help. We say things like:
- "Don't worry. You'll get over him/her."
- "There's plenty more fish in the sea."
- "Oh, come on, it's not that bad. You don't really know what real love is yet. That was just puppy love."
But dismissal doesn’t help. It only reemphasizes that we don’t understand what life is like for them.
The 'Mariah Carey Principle'
My first breakup was after two months of dating Cathy Turner. I was 15, and it slayed me! I'm embarrassed to say that I put Mariah Carey's eponymously titled CD into my CD player and sob-listened as she sang:
Love takes time to heal when you're hurting so much
Couldn't see that I was blind to let you go!
I can't escape the pain inside, 'cos love takes time
I don't wanna be here, I don't wanna be here alone.
And you know what? Mariah was right.
But—and this is the critical point—my parents couldn't tell me that. I had to hear it from someone else. As I comfort-ate my way through far too much high-calorie food and listened to far too much Mariah Carey, I worked through my sorrow and eventually moved on. You may have had a similar experience (although hopefully you lessened your sadness by avoiding Mariah Carey).
Avoid the mistakes. Follow the pattern above. But recognize that sometimes, you won't be the one your teen turns to. As long as they have a positive, healthy person to turn to, or they have effective coping strategies, they'll be ok. Your teen will survive a first broken heart (and you will too!).
These first relationships are a part of growing up. We know this at a basic level, but it’s worth emphasizing because it can be so challenging when our teens fall in love and their worlds comes crashing down. These relationships, successful or not, teach our children how to have healthy, positive relationships. They teach them about their values, what to expect from other people, and how to react to challenges in relationships throughout their lives.
As the parent of a teen, you’ll never be completely ready for your child’s first breakup; it will always be intense and hard. It’s the quality of the relationship you have with your teen that will help you both navigate the good and the bad of teen relationships and breakups. That, and a respectable supply of chocolate.
Dr. Justin Coulson is a bestselling author, husband, and father of six. His latest book is Miss-Connection.
Editor's Note: This post is a lightly edited version of an essay that appeared first on Dr. Coulson's Happy Families Blog. It is used here with permission.