Teen love can be sweet and all-encompassing and intense. It’s also, likely, temporary. Sure, there’s a chance your child’s first love could be their forever love. But, well, probably not.
That’s why the first time your child tells you they’re in a committed relationship, you may immediately begin fretting about what feels like the inevitable breakup.
Before the breakup
Not that we want to start planning for our child’s heartbreak even as they’re still blissfully happy, but realistically, there are a couple of things parents can do to minimise some of the damage, says Dr. Barbara Greenberg, an adolescent and family psychologist in Connecticut.
First, limit the amount of time your child spends with their new significant other. That doesn’t mean setting strict rules about the number of hours per week they can hang out or forbidding dates altogether.
“You don’t want to create a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ sort of thing,” says Greenberg, author of Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual. “Instead, you want to limit your child by keeping them busy with other things; it’s a more subtle approach.”
Secondly, set limits on their social media use. That’s admittedly easier for, say, a 13-year-old than it is for a 17-year-old — but to whatever degree you can, limit the amount of communication your teens can have in their new relationship so it doesn’t become constant or obsessive.
After the break-up, be a good listener
The best thing you can do for your child post-breakup is listen. “We know that teenagers will stop talking if they’re interrupted, and once they start talking about something this vulnerable, just listen, listen, listen,” Greenberg says. “Even if you’re dying to say something that will fix the situation, even if it kills you (to stay quiet).”
While you’re busy listening, remember also to stay calm. If your child’s heart is breaking, yours probably is, too. But don’t allow yourself to be pulled into an emotional reaction, even if that means faking your poise. You need to be the rock.
“The second a parent gets emotional, the child will also stop talking,” Greenberg says. “The child is getting the message that I can’t handle this as a parent, so how could they possibly handle it as the child?”
Don’t minimise it — and don’t make it about you
Even if you know the other kid wasn’t a good influence on yours, even if you could clearly see it was never going to work out, even if the relationship lasted all of six days — don’t minimise it.
“There’s a tendency to minimise and say, ‘Oh listen, you’re only 14 years old, you’ll forget about him,’” Greenberg says. “Don’t do that. It’s invalidating.”
After all, don’t you remember how you felt when you broke up with your first love? How you felt you might never recover and very surely would never find that kind of love again? But, also, how you look back now, grateful that you dodged that bullet or — at the very least — now recognise it for the immature puppy love it was?
Yeah, don’t tell them any of that either.
“Don’t steal it,” Greenberg says. “Kids will stop talking to you if you make it about yourself.”
Spend time with them
You don’t need to spend hours upon hours dissecting every last nuance of the relationship and its subsequent demise. In fact, you shouldn’t, Greenberg says. Talking about it too much can be overwhelming and unhelpful.
“Too much rumination or talking about a negative event is not good,” she says. “You sort of have to ‘dose’ yourself. So, you want to talk to your child about it, but there should be a limit, also.”
But you should spend time with them. Help them stay busy and distracted, while also keeping yourself very clearly available to them in case there is a moment when they want or need to talk about it.
“A lot of teenagers perceive their parents as unavailable because they’re often on their phones or computers,” Greenberg says. “But parents often don’t view themselves that way.”
Advise them (carefully)
Encourage them to do more of the uplifting things they enjoyed before the relationship began, whether that’s a physical activity, listening to music or spending time with friends.
“Distraction, re-engaging in life and time are the three best healers,” Greenberg says.
Also — and this one isn’t going to be easy — encourage them to un-follow their ex on social media.
“I had one (patient) who was so bent out of shape because she kept going on her ex-boyfriend’s Instagram account,” Greenberg says. “She’d see pictures he would post with other girls, and she was obsessing over whether these other girls were new girlfriends.”
And beyond trying to convince your child that seeing a daily log of your ex’s social activities isn’t the best way to heal, you might also suggest they ask their friends to keep the gossipy updates to a minimum, too.
“Gently suggest to them that they not ask their friends about the ex,” Greenberg says. “Because then they get upset when they hear about the ex. We can teach them that we do have the right to tell people, ‘Don’t tell me that; it’s not helpful.’”
One thing you shouldn’t advise? For them to start dating someone new right away.
“You’d be surprised,” she says. “I’ve seen parents say, ‘Oh, what about him, he’s cute.’”
Watch for signs they might need additional help
A break-up is a hard, sad thing to go through, but it shouldn’t be endlessly emotionally debilitating.
Consider enlisting professional help for your child if the heartache lingers too long, they start to become obsessive, or there is a change in their level of functioning, such as not being able to get out of bed in the morning or finding no pleasure in activities they used to love.
“As a parent, we wish we could absorb our kids’ pain,” Greenberg says. “But it’s ok for kids to feel a little bit of distress. If it gets overwhelming and starts interfering with their social life and school, that’s a horse of a different colour.”