Breakups are painful at any age, but there is something about the first breakup in the teenage years that is just extra-excruciating—and it isn’t just painful for the teenager! As an adult, sitting with a teenager who is feeling the sting of a recent breakup can feel so helpless. What should you say? What should you not say?
After years of working with teenagers and their families, I’m convinced there is no one-size-fits-all breakup conversation, but there are a few things parents can do to help their kid get through one of the toughest parts of adolescence.
- Honor big emotions. The teenage years are full of big emotions, and that is especially true when it comes to dating relationships, no matter how brief. Even if it seems impossible for the relationship to have been “serious,” it may have incited some seriously strong emotions. And, while it can be tempting to try and make our teenagers feel better by minimizing the relationship or their feelings—it may be more helpful for us to acknowledge that a breakup is a big deal in their world, even if it isn’t in ours. As parents and caregivers, one of the kindest things you can do for your teenager is honor those big feelings by helping them give the feelings a name and letting them know you take their relationships and their feelings seriously.
- Focus on THEIR experience. As adults, seeing your kid experience heartbreak can be triggering. After all, most of us have been through something similar. But immediately after a breakup, your hurting teenager may not be ready to listen to the details of your own experience. Instead, focus on what is happening to them. It may be helpful to help them process by asking questions like, “What did you like about him/her?” Or, “What is something you are going to miss about spending time with him/her?”
- Identify a support team. One of the best things we can do for teenagers is help them develop the habit of finding mentors and advisers. Simply asking, “Who else are you talking to about this?” may give you some insight into who your teen sees as trustworthy or wise and it may cue them that it is okay to talk to adults about important areas of their lives. While a trusted teacher, small group leader, or aunt/uncle can all make great advisors, there may also be times when it’s helpful to add a professional to the team. If you happen to notice your teen struggling to bounce back from a breakup or is showing signs of depression or anxiety, it may be helpful to reach out to a licensed counselor.
- Coach carefully. Part of dating is developing the skills that dating requires. Skills like asking someone out, balancing time with a significant other, speaking up when you’re uncomfortable, or surviving the hurt of a breakup are all going to be helpful as your teenager moves into adulthood. And while coaching may be unwelcome in the early, stinging days following a breakup, plan to have conversations down the road about what your teenager learned from this experience. It may be helpful to ask questions like, “What is one thing you learned that you like or dislike in a relationship?” Or, “Is there anything you wish you had done differently?”
No matter how the conversation plays out, the most important thing you can do for your teenager is be present. Let them know you are with them through the emotional ups and downs of life—including dating life.
The truth is there is no easy way through a breakup, and that’s okay. Going through something difficult reminds us that we are the kind of people who do difficult things!