Help! My kid's breakup is exhausting me

Apr 10, 2014 at 11:00 a.m. ET

Adolescent breakups aren't for the faint of heart. As much as you want to roll your eyes and say "get over it already," try to get inside your child's mind and heart to provide empathy.

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If you have a teenager, it's only a matter of time before he or she experiences a crush and a breakup. Rather than feeling exhausted by the drama, try to remember where your child is coming from so you can respond appropriately to his or her heartache.

The science of a lovesick teenager

When a person falls in love, their brain is flooded by serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, which mimic the effect of drugs and can cause weak knees, shaky hands, a racing pulse and crazed thoughts. As a parent, you probably understand that your lovesick teenager will eventually go through a breakup, but your teenager's body doesn't know it. The physiological response of falling in love is the same for a teenager and a full-fledged adult, so believing that a first crush doesn't matter because it will eventually go away is actually quite false.

Understanding the teen brain

Not only that, but the realities of the teenage brain can make breakups exceedingly painful and challenging. Before you feel annoyed by the drama of your teenager's breakup, try to remember the following.

  • Your teen's judgment zone isn't developed. The prefrontal cortex of your child's brain won't be fully developed until he or she reaches the age of 25. Since the prefrontal cortex is responsible for judgment, your teen isn't able to easily override negative thoughts and behaviors that tend to spiral after a breakup.
  • Your teen is prone to addiction. Teenage brains are more prone to addictive behaviors like drugs and alcohol than are adult brains. Falling in love mimics the chemical responses of drugs, so the brain of a teenager is especially responsive to the chemical highs and lows of falling in love and breaking up.
  • Your teen lives in the present. Blame it on the under-developed prefrontal cortex, but teens tend to have a hard time thinking about the future. While living in the present has its benefits, it also makes it difficult for teens to realize that they'll eventually recover from their breakup misery.

How to help your child cope

Recovering from a painful breakup takes time and support, so help your child (and yourself!) by employing the following techniques.

  • Validate — Falling in love and breaking up matters a lot to your child, so empathize with his or her feelings and confirm that the feelings are understandable.
  • Provide tools — Give your child information about how to cope with grief. Suggest techniques that have worked for you, like journal-writing, painting or going on a walk. Good self-care strategies can help combat depression, no matter what the age of the person experiencing grief.
  • Remain available — Grief tends to be cyclical. Understand that your child may cycle through sadness, loneliness and joy only to revisit each of the emotions for several months. Remain available for whichever emotions present themselves.

How to care for yourself

Parenting a teenager isn't for the faint of heart, particularly following a breakup. While your focus needs to be on your child's emotions, it's important to care for yourself, too.

  • Give yourself a break. Since teenagers tend to remain in the present (and have difficulty taking breaks from melancholy), your child may want to interminably dwell on the breakup. That said, it's entirely OK to set limits on when you will and will not commiserate with your kid.
  • Don't act surprised. Your emotional response to your child's breakup is likely to be pronounced if you learn your child was betrayed or taken advantage of during the relationship. Don't allow yourself to be swept away by this information, as painful as it may be.
  • Allow yourself to grieve. Your child's first experience with love and heartache may cause you sorrow. A breakup is a reminder that your child is growing into an adult. As with any sorrow, it's important for you to pause and acknowledge your own pain about the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. When you acknowledge your grief for what it is, it will lose its power over you.
  • Call for help. If at any point you feel that your child's grief is beyond what you're equipped to handle, call for backup. Enlist the help of a school counselor or family therapist if you're feeling overwhelmed.

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