My oldest has been in a relationship for almost two years. They met through friends and at 16, seemed to have a better relationship than a lot of adults I know. They weren’t just a couple, they were best friends and she got him to do a lot of things he didn’t do without family.
He’d come home excited about going fishing with her. They would take kayaks out on the water and go sledding in the winter. They had their favorite places to go eat and she even got him into cooking.
While my son never talks to me a lot about personal stuff, I could tell he’s been off these last few weeks. He’s now 19, has a life of his own and I hardly see him. So when he was hanging around the house a lot more, I asked him if he was OK.
I got a half mutter and that was it. I figured he was down, or maybe worn out since he puts in a lot of hours doing manual labor at his job. But when he stayed home for New Year’s Eve and didn’t even talk to his girlfriend on the phone, I knew this wasn’t going to be good.
Watching your child go through heartbreak is excruciating to say the least. It’s not like when they are small and skin their knee, or need stitches. At least then you can do something to fix the pain and make them feel better. The only thing I can do for my son right now, my son who is really hurting, is be there and wait for him to get a little better as each day goes by.
I can’t take the pain away. I’m helpless and I hate it. So I asked Rebecca Tolbert, LICSW, for some pointers for how to navigate the situation as parental onlookers.
First, validate their feelings.
“Comments about how ‘they’ll get over it soon’ or “‘there are more fish in the sea’ can make your teen feel like their current pain doesn’t matter to you. They are likely experiencing both emotional and physical pain as a result of their heartbreak,” said Tolbert.
Explicitly tell them you care. Let them know you are there to listen any time, and when you do, “listen without judgment, if they choose to talk to you about it. Offer hugs, but don’t pressure them for more information than they want to give,” Tolbert said.
Tell them you’re there.
You can’t make your teen talk to you if they don’t want to, or they aren’t ready. “You can provide open-ended opportunities for your teen to open up—preferably with the two of you side by side,” Tolbert suggested. “Some teens find it easier to talk when you’re facing the same direction instead of facing each other. Ask if they want to go for a walk or a drive. Kick a soccer ball down a field. Go check out some local sites.”
Remember this is a hard time for them and their attitudes or habits might change. They may lash out or dive deeper into their phone or social media during this time. Tolbert suggests maintaining the expectations you see as appropriate. “Don’t forget to understand your teen is likely using these things as coping mechanisms. Offer calm redirection and suggest other coping strategies, like coloring, fidgets, or exercise.”
Chances are as their parent you are struggling too. Tolbert added, “Old pain from your own heartbreaks may come to the surface as you watch your teen go through this. To take care of yourself, go for those walks, even if your teen doesn’t go. Let yourself cry if you feel it in your chest. Admire your teen’s, and your own, resiliency.”
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