Spring fling: how to handle your teen's first broken heart

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Parents can help their teens survive the suffering in one piece

Spring fling: how to handle your teen's first broken heart
Oftentimes, empathy is a good approach for a parent who's trying to console a teen with a broken heart. (Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images)

Teenagers learn quickly. If your son or daughter opens up to you only to be shut down, they won’t come to you the next time.

— Sarah O'Leary Burningham, author of "How to Raise Your Parents: A Teen Girl's Survival Guide" and "Boyology: A Teen Girl's Crash Course in All Things Boy"

Hannah loved Mark. Mark loved Hannah. The stereotypical cute teen couple -- they wore matching friendship bracelets -- were firm favourites among school couples and already had mapped out their gap year travelling plans. It was a huge surprise to everyone when the relationship ended -- particularly to Hannah. "It hit her like a thunderbolt," recalled her mother, Susan, 46. "Almost instantly, she turned from a vivacious, energetic 16-year-old into a withdrawn, disconsolate shell of her former self. I had no idea how to help her; it seemed that nothing I said or did made any difference whatsoever." (These are not their first names, for privacy reasons). As Susan now realises, when it comes to handling your teen's first experience of heartbreak, recognising what not to do is just as crucial as knowing what to do.

Should parents share their own experiences?

While you may instinctively -- out of genuine parental love and concern -- want to tell your teen that you understand exactly what he is going through, sometimes talking about your own experiences can diminish what he is feeling.

"Sharing your own experiences is good," said Sarah O'Leary Burningham, author of "How to Raise Your Parents: A Teen Girl's Survival Guide" and "Boyology: A Teen Girl's Crash Course in All Things Boy." "But oftentimes, teenagers just want somebody to listen. They are figuring these things out step by step, and they don't necessarily want you to tell them what to do.

"Listening and being there are the best things a parent can do. Teenagers learn quickly. If your son or daughter opens up to you only to be shut down, they won’t come to you the next time."

Erin Munroe, a child and adolescent therapist, agrees. "Sharing your experiences of love and heartbreak with your teen can be helpful for both parent and teen," she said. “But it is important that it is done in a validating way."

If you minimise the situation with, for example, the cliché, “There are plenty more fish in the sea," you are not sharing in a productive way. "I can see now that I was guilty of constantly trying to take Hannah's mind off Mark," Susan conceded. "I just couldn't bear to see her so upset, and I wanted her to forget her pain."

How to help ease the pain

By acknowledging the difficult emotions and giving your teen the time and space to deal with them rather than trying to make them go away, you will help your teen feel valued, understood and supported. Let her know that you are there should she want to talk, and keep an eye on her to make sure she is still connecting with her friends, studies and extracurricular activities.

Check in with your teen regularly, asking whether he is feeling any better about the situation. Use this opportunity to chat about relationships in general and emphasize what he has going for him, such as sporting or academic achievements, that have nothing to do with his previous relationship. Rebuilding teens' shattered confidence is a crucial part of helping them through the recovery process.

When your teen is ready to talk about the breakup, resist the temptation to pepper her with questions, and don't be judgmental. "Let your teen cry and even be a little angry," Burningham suggested. "And don’t talk bad about her ex. She is looking to you for an example of healthy relationships. Assure her that it is healthy and normal to get her heart broken. And be her shoulder to cry on."

The virtual aspect of modern teenage relationships is one with which some parents may struggle. "Suggest that your teen take a short break from online communication," Burningham said. "Even shutting off her mobile phone and laptop for the first 24 to 48 hours after the breakup will help. Encourage her to spend time outdoors and hang out with her female friends instead of constantly checking her texts, IMs and Facebook."

Boys' reactions vs. girls' reactions

Although heartbroken teenage boys and girls experience the same emotions, there is often a marked difference between the sexes in how they deal with those feelings. Your teenage son might not open up to you or his friends the same way a daughter does.

"I think boys have a much tougher time dealing with their first heartbreak," Munroe said. "Boys don't often allow each other to be sad, and they tend to have fewer crying fests with their guy friends than girls do.

"Sometimes finding a male role model to talk to a teenage boy is much more powerful than having a parent talk about heartbreak. A cousin or close family friend who is about 5 years older is a great person to have a teenage boy speak with about feelings."

Teenagers of both sexes may find it helps to have a mentor, or someone who has the experience to give them advice if they ask for it and the ability to be there as a sounding board without taking a moral stance.

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