During middle school and high school years, your teen is learning how to be in relationships, including what it means to be in an exclusive relationship, how to communicate with others, and what constitutes healthy and unhealthy relationships. At this stage in their development, relationships are often much more about physical attraction and feelings rather than character qualities or long-lasting types of love (not all, but most).
While teens spend a lot of time together in groups, they are also starting to spend more time in dating relationships. This can quickly become very confusing because some teens may think they are just “hanging out” while others may interpret it as “dating.”
To further complicate matters, teens in the same peer group may have competing relationships. This can contribute to a lot of drama and tension, especially when there are hurt feelings and rejections in the same friend group.
Why Breakups Can Be Extremely Devastating for Teens
At this stage in life, teen relationships may be short lived — whether it lasts a few days, weeks, or months — but it doesn’t mean that a breakup isn’t devastating for your child, especially if it’s their first breakup. Teens sometimes put a lot of pressure on themselves to be in a relationship in order to fit in with their peers. Or they may attach their self-worth or confidence to their relationship status. So when their relationship ends, whether they were broken up with or they initiated the breakup, it can have many implications for how they view themselves and their place with their peers.
The breakup can feel like a rejection of who they are as a person (we still experience this as adults), friendship dynamics can change, gossip can spread about the breakup at school, and they can feel like they “messed up” the relationship somehow and blame themselves. It’s important to keep all of these things in mind when your child comes to you for help with a breakup.
Talking With Your Child About a Breakup
It can be tempting to diminish the severity of your child’s breakup. As adults, we have the years and wisdom to know that everything will be OK and that “there are other fish in the sea.” But, for your child, they may feel like their first breakup signifies the end of their world as they know it.
They may be mopey, lethargic, and sad following the breakup. Instead of encouraging your child to “just get over it,” give them space to verbalize their feelings and experience them. Encouraging your child to identify what they are experiencing is a valuable life skill that often isn’t taught at home or in school.
Ask them how they are feeling and offer empathy. After going through a breakup, they may feel like no one understands or cares about them. Extending empathy toward them can help remind them that there are other people in their life who care about them even if their relationship is over. Remember that empathy is about seeking to understand another person’s viewpoint even if you don’t necessarily agree with them.
Simply listen to what your child is saying, and try to see what it would be like to go through the breakup through their experience (which is likely very different from how an adult would experience it). This can be an especially useful strategy when it’s hard to agree when your child’s reaction seems overly dramatic to you. By providing empathy, you are letting your child know that you care about them, their perspective, and how they are being affected by it. And it is much more effective than saying, “Don’t worry, you’ll get over it” … or “You’ll find someone else soon enough.”
And, when in doubt, simply listen, especially if you are unsure of what to say. Listening can go a long way in letting your child know that you care about them and they are a valued member of the family. Additionally, simply listening can give you the opportunity to listen for aspects of the relationship that were either healthy or unhealthy. You can then gently point out the positive relationship qualities or the negative ones. And, in the case of negative qualities, you can encourage your child to label them as unhealthy and encourage them to seek out healthier qualities in their next relationship.
A first breakup can be overwhelming and devastating for your child. Having some insight into how they view relationships, as well as being armed with the power of empathy and listening, you are able to offer your child the support, compassion, and encouragement they need during a difficult time in their life. Even if you can’t take their heartache away, you can help make the healing process a little easier.