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 break-up 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 realised 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 - someone who they'll now have to see each and every day as they enter the school grounds, attend class, and eat lunch. This rarely happens for us as adults. A relationship breakdown usually means we rarely have to see that ex-lover again. (Sure, if kids are involved that's going to change things... but we've also typically developed the maturity to manage this.)
- 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 in a trusting relationship could now leave your child vulnerable to revenge attacks, sex-tortion, or simply humiliation and embarrassment.
And watching our children experience this heartache (and privately carry these burdens - or even trauma) is tremendously challenge for us as parents, especially when we can’t actually fix it for them! There’s no Band-Aid, no special treat, no hug that will make it all better.
So what can we do when our teen's heart is breaking?
Firstly, don’t try to fix this. 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 recognise 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 their emotional world. But you're also giving them autonomy. This sense of choice (and the fact it's coming from you) makes them feel like they're capable. Moreover, it invites them to pause, step back from their emotions, and consider what it is that they actually need right now.
Our child needs us to be available to them in a non-controlling way if they want us. Whether with us 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 their wellbeing and resilience.
Some ideas for connecting during this difficult time:
- Invite them to chat with you 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!
- Recognise 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, these are critically important words. Your child needs those words. 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 their ex in a way that you are unhappy about. There is potential that you may find out things that are hard for you, as a parent, to hear.
These three words are the words that are most critical right now.
What your teen doesn’t need from you
Sometimes we’ll be delighted that our teen's relationship with their 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 children for being emotional.
"Get over yourself. You're blowing things out of proportion. Stop being such a sook about it."
It can be natural for us, as parents, to try and 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 it doesn’t help. It only re-emphasises 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? 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 my way 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 recognise that sometimes you won't be the one your child 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 child will survive their first breakup (and you will too).
These first relationships are a part of growing up. We know this at a basic level, but it’s worth emphasising because it can be so challenging when our teens fall in love, and when their world 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 a teen parent, 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.