I remember when it happened to me.
I was 19 and going to college in California. Aaron, my first real boyfriend, was set to pick me up for a date in his cool blue classic Barracuda. When he ran more than an hour late, I called to ask where he was.
He answered simply: “I’m not coming. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Just the most important romantic relationship I had ever had? With the love of my life? The man I dreamed of skiing off into the sunset and having beautiful blond children with?
Why don’t you want to do this anymore? Why don’t you want to be with me? Why am I not good enough?
Why? Why? Why?
Aaron was breaking up with me.
The questions, self-doubt and pain flooded in immediately and lasted for what, at the time, seemed like forever. My heartbreak followed me everywhere – to work, where I cried in my boss’s office at Grass Roots Natural Foods Cafe. To Lake Tahoe Community College, where I was forced to sit behind Aaron for the rest of the semester of English Lit 101, staring at the back of his golden locks and wondering how I could possibly live without him.
I called home to Michigan to tell my dad the news, bursting into tears.
I don’t know what he said, but I remember he phoned long distance and had a pizza delivered to my door. It was a small gesture, but I’m sure he didn’t know what else to do, being thousands of miles away.
Yet even if your teen lives under your very own roof, as a parent you probably still feel a sense of helplessness watching her go through that painful rite of passage.
According to licensed psychologist Brandi Pritchett-Johnson, heartbreak is a standard part of growing up, and it’s completely normal for parents to feel powerless in its wake.
But there are some things you can do to usher your son or daughter through this tough time.
Heartbreak is described by Merriam-Webster as “crushing grief, anguish or distress.” Nowhere is the definition tied to a romantic relationship – and Pritchett-Johnson, who works with youth and adolescents in southeast Michigan, says heartbreak is experienced by the youngest of children.
“On the very basic level, heartbreak is essentially disappointment, dissatisfaction and the pain we experience when our expectations are not met. We feel hurt and broken up about that,” says “Dr. Brandi,” as she’s known, who specializes in identity development, adjustment and trauma. “The emotional experience of heartbreak is actually quite common and doesn’t have to be in a relational context.”
When a 5-year-old’s pet dies, a 6-year-old misplaces his favorite stuffed animal or a 7-year-old loses a crucial game, each can feel deep aching and grief.
“Sure, it might not be the same heartbreak an adult would experience, but it’s still very legitimate,” Pritchett-Johnson says.
Yet as children grow into the tween years, friends and relationships become increasingly more important, leading to the possibility of failed first crushes and unrequited love. Then, in the teen years, comes the capacity for real romantic love – and loss.
This is where heartbreak hits hard and new agonizing emotions make teens feel like they will never find anyone else and will never feel whole again, as long as they live.
Whether a young person deals with heartbreak through dramatic emotions or icy withdrawal, parents are left wondering how to act.
While it’s important to be there for your child and there are ways you can help (click here for nine tips for healing heartache), Pritchett-Johnson encourages parents not to be scared of the roller-coaster ride of feelings breakups can bring.
“Heartbreak is one of the greatest resilience builders,” she says. “You get a sense of what you’re really made of.”
Heartbreak will consume your child for a time, and it’s important to normalize it, inquire about it and listen when and if they want to talk.
It’s also important to remember that this moment will pass.
“Children, preteens and teens have far more capacity to endure things than we think they do,” Pritchett-Johnson says.
This post was originally published in 2017 and is updated regularly.