The breakup of a romantic relationship is almost always hard. Even as adults, we might mourn, weep, question our worth, and wonder if we’ll ever be happy again. The Holmes and Rahe stress scale (for adults), which seeks to score big life events in relation to how they affect your overall stress level, rates divorce as second only to the death of a spouse. While teen breakups are not nearly as long or complicated as a divorce, they still can bring sorrow, guilt, emptiness, low self-esteem, and anger.
In fact, some people who have been through divorces might get angry at me even comparing a teen breakup to a divorce. As adults who have watched friends and family divorce, or divorced ourselves, we know the two are very different. But a teen has never been married or partnered, has never been divorced, and may well have never been in a relationship lasting longer than three months. To you, it’s a blip on the radar. To them, it’s the end of the world.
How do you help your teen get over a breakup?
Recognize their emotions and respect them. The end of a two week online relationship (for example) might not seem like it should involve all this misery. However, your teen’s sadness is real, and telling them it shouldn’t exist can make it even worse. “I’m sorry you feel so awful” is a great way to empathize. “But you never even met in person!”, while accurate, is less helpful. If your teen is sad, accept their sadness for what it is and respect their right to feel that way.
Realize that breaking up with someone can be as bad as being broken up with. Someone can break up with a romantic partner for good reasons, and know it’s the right thing to do, and still feel terrible about it. Making someone else feel horrible is, in itself, horrible. If you’ve ever broken up with someone you still cared about, you can relate. Remind them that while it’s normal to feel guilty, they have a right to end a relationship that doesn’t work for them. Depending on the situation, yours might be the only voice of reason.
Don’t expect them to look on the bright side right away. We know that teens can bounce from relationships to relationship so fast it’s hard to keep track. That said, most teens aren’t going to think that there are other fish in the sea until they’re ready. They might think that they are doomed to eternal single life at age 15, or will never fall in love again and have to settle for a marriage of convenience. Gently remind them that it’s not true, feel free to make outrageous wagers on them finding someone else eventually, and give them some time to brood if needed.
Watch out for their mental health. Impulsivity and intense feelings, both hallmarks of adolescence, can drive teens to depression or poor coping skills. If you’re worried your teen is not getting over the breakup, or is dealing with it in an unhealthy way, seek help from a mental health professional. If you’re worried your teen might be thinking of suicide, ask them- and if they are, seek help immediately.
Encourage creative ways to express feelings. Almost all teens are creative, and you can help them use those attributes to express sadness, anger, jealousy, regret, and many other emotions. Suggest they write it out, draw it out, dance, take pictures, make a collage, whatever they like to do. Channeling negative emotions into artistic pursuits can be very helpful in relieving pain.
While watching your teen go through a painful breakup can be heartrending, the empathy and concern you feel can be the most comforting thing for them. Even the most independent teens often seek out their family in times of stress. Luckily, you know what comforts them and you can provide the little things- a favorite dessert, a walk in nature, cute kitten videos, a dinner out, etc- that will help more than anything else ever could.