How parents can support a heartbroken teen
Teenage romances can be sweet, but also terribly heartbreaking. When those first loves end, parents are left watching their babies maneuver feelings they haven’t experienced before. It can be gut-wrenching for all parties.
“It was absolutely terrible,” Whitney Surane recalls when her 16-year-old daughter went through a breakup in December. “She wasn’t eating. She wasn’t sleeping for the first three or four days. I just slept on the floor next to her.”
The following week or so was filled with lots of mother-daughter Target shopping trips, binge-watching episodes of Friends and staying away from social media.
Surane tells Yahoo Life she wanted to bring joy back to her daughter, Lyla, so they focused on what makes her happy. More on that later.
But Teri Apter, author of The Teen Interpreter and a psychologist at Newnham College, Cambridge, says it’s actually boys who usually have a harder time dealing with breakups. Apter tells Yahoo Life that this is attributed to girls typically having a greater friendship network to lean on for support. These close friends act as co-regulators of emotions.
“Through intimate conversations, friends help them reflect on their feelings, stimulating the brain’s executive functions that can cause anxiety and despair,” Apter says. “But boys, because they tend to shut down friendship intimacy in later adolescence, when the guy code exerts its demands to be strong and independent and to carry emotional burdens in silence, are more dependent on a romantic partner who may be their sole source of intimacy. Moreover, boys tend to have more stable friendships and are less practiced in the hard lessons of rupture and repair that girls learn in late childhood. A first romantic breakup then becomes a trauma that they are very slow to process.”
Regardless of your child’s sex, Tashuna Hunt, a therapist who works with teens in Grand Rapids, Mich., says when heartbreak hits your house, parents should hold off on offering advice right away. Instead, pause and listen.
“As parents, a lot of times we feel like we know the answers; we’ve been there, we’ve done that,” Hunt tells Yahoo Life. “I challenge parents to listen with their ears, their eyes and their heart. Validate their feelings, because their feelings are very real.”
As tempting as it may be to tell your devastated child what you think they need to do to end the misery phase, don’t. Hunt says the better approach is to ask your teen what they need from you and how they want to be supported.
It’s typical for teens to shut down when they’re going through a breakup, and that’s OK — for a while.
“Give them space to mope for a short period, but continue to check in on them,” Hunt says. “Identify their village, people they trust. A lot of times kids don’t want to worry their parents, but they are more comfortable talking to an aunt, an older cousin, someone they trust.”
If your child isn’t up for talking, Alexis Bleich, a NYC-based social worker and therapist who works with teens, says there are other ways to communicate and let your child know you support them.
“Leave a note in their room, send a text message,” Bleich says. “Ask if they just want a hug or if they just want to eat ice cream and watch a movie together.”
Bleich tells Yahoo Life while you may want to switch into Mama Bear-protective-mode, you should be careful with what you say.
“It’s common to think, ‘how could they have done this to my precious baby?’ but you want to refrain from saying things like, ‘he was a terrible boyfriend’ or ‘you’re better off without her,’” Bleich says. “Remember kids break up and get back together and break up and get back together, or they may stay friends.”
This is a good opportunity to model for your child that breakups are a natural part of life. It doesn’t necessarily mean that one person is bad; it just means that these two people were not romantically suited for each other.
Back to heartbroken 16-year-old Lyla. Mom Whitney encouraged her daughter to focus on what makes her happy, which was baking. Lyla already had her own baking business, so she decided to expand that. On her Instagram account, BeansBakeryCo, she started a series called “The Heartbake — baking my way through heartbreak.” She releases a new video every Sunday where she bakes things like cream puffs, edible cookie dough and banana bread, all while sharing how she’s feeling while navigating a breakup.
“Baking is therapy for me, and I felt people would find comfort and joy out of it and relate to it,” Lyla says.
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