It’s inevitable: your child will endure heartbreak. How can you help him or her heal? Here are nine tips for parents.
1. Normalize it. Heartbreak is among the wide range of normal human emotions – a fact that can be very validating for teens, says adolescent psychologist Brandi Pritchett-Johnson. Let them know you understand they must be feeling really sad, frustrated and hurt. “Normalization breeds empathy. We’re human, and we’re going to be impacted by things,” she says.
2. Watch what you say. While it may be true that “time heals all wounds” and “there are more fish in the sea,” it’s probably best to avoid clichés in the midst of your child’s heartbreak. It’s also not a good idea to regale them with stories of your own love lost – unless they want you to. “The best way to support someone in the moment is with presence, engagement and empathy,” Pritchett-Johnson says. “Self disclosure is obviously a very good tool as well, as long as it’s invited. (Say something like), ‘I remember the first time I got my heart broken. Do you want to know what I did?’ Kids will tell you.”
3. Don’t bash the ex. Yes, your teen’s turmoil is probably causing you to feel emotions of your own, like anger at the person who caused your child such pain. But don’t descend into pointing out all the flaws that make the breakup “a blessing in disguise.” Remember this person is very special to your teen and keep your comments to yourself.
4. Inquire. The simple act of questioning is incredibly productive, Pritchett-Johnson says. Asking “What is it that you’re sad about? What is making you so upset? Where does it hurt?” also helps show you care. “Inquiry is a really cool tool that anybody can use,” she says. “Just be mindful of your tone, which is a critical differentiating factor between inquiry and interrogation.”
5. Give them space. Sometimes your teen may not want to talk, or might be unable to put their emotions into words. Children may not have language to express what they think and what they feel, Pritchett-Johnson says, but that’s OK. Just be patient and encourage them to come to you when they’re ready. You might even ask if you can inquire about their feelings again the next day or week. “Have a conversation about having a conversation,” she says. “Most of the time they’ll give you permission for that.”
6. Widen the circle. Maybe your teen isn’t comfortable opening up to you just yet, but he or she has friends and family members who can help. Suggest a favorite uncle or grandparent who might be a great sounding board.
7. Analyze social media. Cyberstalking their ex will only intensify and prolong the pain. And while impulsively sharing their feelings online may offer temporary relief, that can backfire too. Encourage your teen to reflect on whether they are using sites like Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat in a healthy way, then trust them to come to their own conclusion, Pritchett-Johnson says. “I encourage young people to observe for themselves the relationship they have with social media.”
8. Distract. While it’s important to give your child time to process, reflect and vent, there’s also something to be said for “intentional, compassionate distraction,” Pritchett-Johnson notes. Taking your teen out to a favorite restaurant or downloading the latest season of their favorite show can give them a much-needed break from sadness and self-criticism. “Intentional distraction and avoidance are two very different things.”
9. Let them feel. Don’t be afraid to let your teen feel authentic emotions. Sometimes nothing’s better than a good cry, and honoring sadness is the best way to heal and move through it. “I think we’re more uncomfortable with that than the child or adolescent,” Pritchett-Johnson says. “We don’t have to rush to fix everything.”