This past school year, I got a text from my daughter, a college student. She had been listening to a close friend whose boyfriend just broke up with her talking to her mother on the phone. The text said, “think her mom is saying many wrong things. Thankful I have a mom who knows what to say! Love you!”
I’m not mentioning this to sing my own praises. In fact, I learned the hard way, through my older daughter, what happens when you say the wrong things. When that daughter was 16, she was thrilled to be attending homecoming with her first boyfriend. My excitement for her quickly turned to disappointment when I learned my husband and I had a previous engagement out-of-town. The day of homecoming, she called me in tears. She had asked her boyfriend why he seemed unexcited to hang out with her. He responded that he had stopped “liking her” two weeks ago but wanted to wait until after homecoming to break the news. My daughter promptly ended the relationship — and her prospects for a homecoming date — just hours before the big dance.
My heart ached for her. I felt helpless, unable to hug her or give her a shoulder to cry on, and instead was forced to provide comfort through long-distance phone calls. And even then, I found myself stumbling for the right words to offer her the support she craved. Fortunately, she decided to attend homecoming with a group of girlfriends, where she managed to enjoy herself. But that painful memory still lingers for me — along with the fear of having to relive it with her two younger siblings.
The reality is that most teen relationships end one way or another. That’s not surprising to parents who have been through it, but it can be devastating to young people with raging hormones. A break-up to a young person truly can seem like the end of the world. Particularly if it’s their first love, the loss can be huge, since that person becomes the major focus of their life. When that’s lost, “it’s like the meaning of their life is taken away,” says Carl Pickhardts, a psychologist and author of the Psychology Today blog, “Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence.”
A boyfriend or girlfriend provides an identity as well as a constant companion and ally — something that quickly comes to an end with a break-up, says Roni Cohen-Sandler, a clinical psychologist and author of I’m Not Mad. I Just Hate You and Trust Me, Mom. Everyone Else Is Going. The teen loses the status of being a couple, which carries social cache and provides security. If their partner was considered popular, they can suffer fall-out from their peers. And then there’s additional loss when they sever ties they once had with their partner’s friends and family.
To add to the humiliation, the accessibility of the internet these days means that the details of a teen’s break-up can be quickly broadcast. For middle school students, who are less mature and more vulnerable to peer pressure, the repercussions can be even greater, says Margaret J. Blythe, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine and chair of the Committee on Adolescents for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
It’s often hard to know how much your kids are suffering. Girls are usually more talkative and tend to share their feelings, while boys can be more sullen and withdrawn. Pickhardts says boys are prone to more aggressive — sometimes even retaliatory — behavior. But boys “can be just as devastated, even more so than girls,” says Cohen-Sandler. She said that while some boys may identify with their fathers and want to confide in them, others don’t want their Dad to see them in a state of weakness, so their mother may be a better confidante. Depending on their relationship with the child, either parent is capable of providing an emotionally supportive response, “but moms are often more practiced at this than dads,” Pickhardt says.
Trying to help your teen through a break-up without seeming intrusive can be a challenge, especially since they’re unlikely to turn to you. So how can you let your child know you’re there for them without appearing judgmental or dismissive?
Listening is key. Let them vent and be heard, without giving your opinion. Be sympathetic, saying something like, “What you’re going through must be really difficult” or “This must be really painful for you.” Gilda Carle, founder of DrGilda.com and author of Teen Talk With Dr. Gilda: A Girl’s Guide to Dating, suggests leaving the door open for discussion, saying, “I’m here for you whenever you would like to talk.” She says a parent’s job is to allow their child a safe place to discuss their thoughts, feelings and fears, and that parents should act as the facilitator, not the judge.Blythe suggests taking advantage of windows of time when you’re alone with your child to discuss the situation. For middle school students, that could be while you’re driving them to an activity. Ask open-ended questions like, “I notice you’ve been feeling very sad. Can you help me to understand what’s going on?”
Another part of a parent’s job is to reassure. The depth of your child’s feelings of loss may be frightening to them. Rhea Brandon, a school psychologist and vice principal of Pleasanton Unified in Pleasanton, California, suggests saying, “it’s very normal to hurt when you break up with somebody you cared about,” since this helps them to understand this isn’t unusual. And, as hard as it may be, try to get them to focus on the positive outcomes, emphasizing that all relationships eventually come to an end, even if it’s because of death. Dee Shepherd-Look, a professor of psychology at California State University in Northridge, suggests asking your child what they learned about themselves from the relationship. Explain that making and breaking relationships is what life is about, and that every time you make a relationship you gain from it, helping you better understand who you like to be with.
There are times when you may want to end a possessive relationship before your child does. When the couple insists on spending all their time together, neglecting all other relationships, it can be very unhealthy. “A parent’s job is to help the young person keep life in balance when all the young person wants to do is focus attention on love,” says Pickhardts. Forbidding them to see each other isn’t the answer, since teens are likely to push in the other direction the more you say no. Instead, ask probing questions that will help your child realize that the relationship is unhealthy, says Shepherd-Look, like, “How did you feel when he showed up at your friend’s all-girl birthday party to see if there were boys there? What does that tell you about him? How did that make you feel?” Be subtle and don’t preach. Another strategy is to distance your child from the conversation and instead point out an example of another possessive relationship, like a celebrity’s. Ask your child what they think it means to be possessive, and whether they think that’s good or bad. Shepherd-Look urges parents to intervene in these situations, since it’s not healthy for teens so spend all their time with one person. She suggests emphasizing that it’s healthy in adolescence to be active in group activities, like sports or youth groups. And tell your teen that they need to maintain their same sex friendships, since relationships don’t last forever.
It’s important for parents to understand it’s normal for teens to go through a mourning process when they’re upset, eating less, crying and often unable to sleep. But look for warning signs if a child’s not bouncing back within a few weeks, says Brandon. In some situations, usually for those with teens with depressive tendencies, the results can be tragic. She knows of a student with an existing mental health disorder who took her life following a recent break-up with her boyfriend. While Brandon says that situation is rare, she urges parents to watch for signs of depression, like extreme crying, not eating, withdrawing from hobbies, an increase or decrease in sleep and not engaging in other relationships. Carle says parents should trust their instincts. If the period of moroseness continues, she suggests asking, “Are you feeling depressed?” Suggest that if they don’t feel comfortable talking to you, they can speak to someone else to help sort through their feelings. Even if they refuse, they know the option is available to them. If a child has suicidal thoughts, seek professional help immediately. Some helpful websites to deal with depression are:
– 800-273-TALK (suicide/depression hotline)
– Families for Depression Awareness
– National Mental Health Association
– National Alliance on Mental Illness
– 1-800-950-NAMI (toll free line for information, support, and referrals)
– National Institute of Mental Health
– American Academy of Pediatrics
When your child is the one doing the breaking up, it can be just as traumatic. Often teens will stay in a relationship far longer than they want, so they don’t hurt their partner’s feelings or experience guilt. Explain to your child that they have the right to end relationships when they’re not working for them, and that it’s not fair to continue dating if they don’t want to remain in the relationship. Tell them it’s possible to end the relationship in a humane way. “Helping them to do that is where parents come in,” Shepherd-Look says. She encourages teens to break up in person or at least through a phone conversation, not through texting. She says teens should be honest, emphasizing the positive parts of the relationship, and telling their partner that there will always be happy memories. And insist they keep the details private, and not post them on Facebook or text their friends about it, explaining that can be devastating to their ex.
If done right, your support can bring you closer to your teen, the way it did for Sara Treadwell, who lives in Florida. Her daughter broke off a two-year relationship with her boyfriend after he cheated on her. When she heard pacing at 2:00 a.m. she found her daughter awake. She “launched herself on me,” sobbing hysterically, said Treadwell. “Of course I was thrilled that she turned to me, but I tried hard not to show it.” Her daughter later told her, “You were there for me but I don’t think anyone can help you get through a break-up. You have to do it yourself.” Still, it’s a bit reassuring to know that a parent can at least help ease the pain.
Julie Halpert is a freelance journalist with more than three decades of experience writing for numerous national publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek, Family Circle, CNBC and The Wall Street Journal. She is the co-author of Making Up With Mom: Why Mothers and Daughters Disagree About Kids, Careers, and Casseroles. She covers a range of topics, including parenting, health, how boomers are reinventing retirement, the spending patterns of millennials, science, environment and self-driving cars. She co-teaches a journalism class at The University of Michigan.