Broken hearts are as much a part of adolescence as pimples and piles of homework. As my wise mother (who, by the way, married her high school sweetheart and recently celebrated 60 years of wedded bliss!) is want to say, You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you meet the handsome prince. I would add, or princess. I’m not sure what made her such an expert, but she is certainly right.
Most people don’t get relationship right the first time they try. For most, a series of breakups and failed relationships is a necessary part of learning how to be in a relationship: how to communicate, how to handle conflict, how to be intimate, how to treat an intimate partner, how to expect to be treated by a partner. While breakups can certainly be painful for one or both parties, they are part of a developmental process that, when all goes well, results in an adult who is prepared to navigate the challenges that even the strongest, healthiest relationships bring.
So what is a mother to do when her son is moping around, not eating, and uninterested in schoolwork or ballgames, all because someone has broken his heart? What can Dad do to help a daughter who is in pain because she was dumped by her first true love?
Let’s start with what not to do. The list might surprise you.
- Don’t minimize your child’s experience. You know that it’s “just” a high school relationship, that she will survive it, and that her broken heart is a normal part of growing up, but to her, it feels like the end of the world. If you don’t recognize the magnitude of her loss, she will assume you are not hearing her.
- Don’t talk about your own experiences at your child’s age or with a failed relationship. Your story may be helpful when his heartbreak is less acute, but in the throes of a breakup, telling your story signals that you are not listening.
- Don’t badmouth the ex. No matter how much you want to throttle the ex, remember that your child’s heart is broken. Criticizing the ex is highly unlikely to convince your daughter that she is better off without him (or her) and may, paradoxically, push her into defending him and his actions. If she’s crying because her boyfriend broke up with her, clearly she believes she has lost someone worth having.
The “Do” list is much shorter, not really a list at all. Here it is:
- Listen empathically. Listen to his story. Over and over, if he needs to tell it. Reflect back his thoughts and feelings without judgment and without reassurance. Simply being with him in this way is the best gift you can offer in this moment.
Just this week, I saw a heartbroken teenager, Ryder. He had come in for his first session, and it became evident immediately that I was not going to be gathering much information from him. As soon as I found out his age (17) and his grade in school (senior), and I asked what brought him in to see me, he started to cry and tell me that his girlfriend had broken up with him because she wants to be free to date new people when she goes away to college. I then spent the remainder of the session listening to Ryder tell me the story of the relationship and the breakup. Even though it was obvious to me that his girlfriend had been treating him badly for several months, I kept that opinion to myself. Here’s a sampling of the comments I made:
- It sounds like you really, really care about Angela.
- You’re trying hard to understand her decision, but it still really hurts.
- You don’t know how you’re going to get over this.
The session lasted about 45 minutes. About a half hour in, Ryder dried his tears. We continued to talk about his thoughts and feelings about Angela. We didn’t solve any problems, and except for reflective comments, I said nothing especially “therapeutic.” At the end of the session, Ryder shook my hand and thanked me. He commented,
Thanks, I feel a lot better. – Ryder, age 17
To which I responded, Glad I could help. Then, Ryder closed the session by saying
Yea, thanks for not telling me to get over it.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]