How to Help Your Teen Through a Brutal Breakup
It finally happened: Your teen's heart just got crushed like a bug by their (very) significant other, and it's uglier than you could have imagined. Whether they were the dumper or the dumpee, teenagers can be incredibly vulnerable and deeply sensitive to the pain of a breakup. What can you do to help your teen bounce back and stay open to loving again? Well, as it turns out, there's a lot you can do as a parent — and a few things you shouldn't do — to help your teen through this challenging time. Below are the top tips I've learned in my training as a crisis counselor (and my "training" as a parent of teens) for how to help a teen through an epic breakup.
What not to do
Trash-talk the ex
Resist all urges to badmouth them, no matter how wretched their behavior may have been. Who knows? As much as you might be glad to see the ex exit, this may turn out to be a break, not a breakup — and you don't want your kid repeating any not-so-nice things you said about their on-again, off-again bae, so bite your tongue.
Make it about you
Vent in private to your own dear friends. Grieve the loss of their ex on your own if you were fond of them. But don't put it on your teen to comfort you. That's what mimosa brunches with old college friends are for. And the last thing your child needs right now is in-depth harrowing descriptions of each of your breakups and how you made it through. That's not to say that your own experience and wisdom don't matter. If your teen asks, or it seems appropriate, it's fine to share a (short) story or two about a loss you were sure you couldn't get through but did. Grief is a part of life — but it's not necessarily time for you to teach a master class on it. This is your child's story and your child's pain, not yours (yes, even if you really adore their ex).
What to do
And listen some more. Listen until you are sick of hearing about it — and then keep listening. Obviously, this only works if your child is willing to talk. If they are, fantastic. Give them a safe space to vent (as opposed to anywhere online, but we'll get to that). It may be a first (or second or third) love, but it's probably very real and very painful for your child. The best thing you can do is be there to support them and let them know you have their back — and they have your ear whenever they need it. Breakups are often confusing and miserable no matter who instigated the split. Hey, just poke at your own ancient memories with a stick. Unwrap the cobwebs, and you might just remember a few breakups you never thought you'd survive. Be the one who takes your teen's pain seriously and honors their need to grieve.
Your teen's normal temperament may take a turn for the worse, and you may be tempted to run for the hills. Breakups bring out the worst in everybody — of any age. Stay strong and steady as your teen weathers the storm of their own devastating emotions. Cut them some slack if they lash out or rage inappropriately at family, at friends, at you. This is all part of the breakup learning curve. And if your normally talkative teen's first reaction is to shut you out, respect that. Give them the space they need for a little while — but check in regularly and gently.
Encourage your teen to take it day by day & take care of themselves
If they don't want to eat, it's OK to bribe them with their favorite takeout meal. Buy them a new water bottle and leave it iced and full by their bed. Gently remind them that wallowing is OK, but only for a while, and they'll feel better if they shower and get outside. (By week two post-breakup, you may need to put your foot down about the shower thing for the sake of the rest of the family.) Remind them of things they loved to do before the relationship — and offer to help them go do those things with good friends. A support system outside the family is key right now, so if your teen has a BFF, don't hesitate to suggest they spend some time together (IRL). Yes, your teen may hate all these suggestions. Yes, you might get a door slammed in your face. Breathe. They're listening.
Talk to your teen about the ramifications of venting on social media
That stuff lives forever and saying unkind things about their ex online will only reflect badly on your kid in the end. If they're open to it, advise them to unplug for a week and stay away from all devices and social media sites. Do they really want to see their ex living it up on Instagram without them — or taking bunny-ear cute selfies on Snapchat with someone new? That stuff is brutal and counterproductive. Let them know it's more than OK to unfollow an ex for a while, even if the hope is that maybe down the line they'll get back together. Sanity is key, and keeping it classy is a fantastic habit that will serve them well as adults too. Though social media is the way many teens meet partners (and even break up, ouch), it's not a helpful method for getting over someone — like, ever.
Reassure them that they are going to get through this
If they're open to it, explore the possible positive aspects of the breakup. Was there something about the relationship that stifled them? Is there an activity they loved but drifted away from because of the relationship? Have they been feeling distant from old friends? Again, tread lightly and only bring it up if they're receptive. Breakups definitely build character and wisdom, but emotional resilience isn't something any of us learn in a day. (We kind of love the idea of attending a breakup summit — because who of us ever learned a good way to end a relationship?)
Take your child's pain very seriously
Keep a close eye on any worrisome behavioral changes that won't go away. Adolescent researcher Lucia O'Sullivan, professor of psychology at the University of New Brunswick, wrote, "Breakups are believed to be the No. 1 cause of suicides among young people. What could be more serious as a mental health issue?"
O'Sullivan reported that in one study, 40 percent of teens experienced actual clinical depression following a breakup and another 12 percent reported moderate to severe depression. Those are sobering statistics indeed — and your teen may very well be vulnerable.
O'Sullivan advises parents to watch out for red flag symptoms in their children post-breakup: insomnia; signs of substance use; possible self-harm; and intrusive, obsessive thoughts about the relationship. Don't be afraid to ask the hard questions. After all, they're hurting like adults, but they're still kids in many ways. Protect them. If they don't want to talk to you, offer to help them to find a counselor. If the idea of talking to anyone out loud makes them balk, let them know about Crisis Text Line, where they can text privately with a live trained crisis counselor at any time, 24-7 (text 'HOME' to 741-741 to begin a chat with a counselor). If you suspect your child may have been abused in the relationship, offer Love Is Respect as a possible resource. And if all else fails, don't hesitate to reach out to a family therapist or a trusted teacher at your teen's school.
The good news? Chances are on your teen's side that they'll get over this breakup — and maybe even manage to hang onto some fond memories of this early love. Don't give up on them, and don't make them feel small or silly for caring so deeply. Commend their commitment to the relationship — and remind them how very lucky someone will be someday to have a heart like theirs in their corner. They've got this, and they've got you too.