Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Helping Your Teen Through a Break Up

Q&A with Ellen Braaten, PhD

Anna Sokolovska, PhD
Courtesy of

Q: What are the best ways to approach a teen dealing with a break up? Do boys react differently than girls?

First of all, it’s important to keep in mind that the heartbreak of a teenage breakup can be huge for both boys and girls. Not only is the relationship usually a first love – it’s often also the first time the teen is experiencing the ending of an important relationship. Second, when parents see their children hurting, they instinctively want to take the pain away, but trying to do that by saying, “You’ll find someone better” or “He wasn’t right for you,” isn’t the right way to go. On the other hand, you don’t want to overdo the empathy, particularly if it was a relationship that was short-lived (even if it was intense). Finding the middle ground is best – provide empathy by saying things like, “It really hurts to lose someone you love” or simply, “I’m so sorry you have to go through this.” It’s also important to be around more than you might normally be because this is a time your teen – male or female – might seek you out.

In terms of differences between boys and girls, it might surprise you to hear that boys often suffer more in the aftermath of a breakup than a girl, especially if they are “dumped.” Girls tend to have felt the heartbreak of arguing with and possibly losing close girlfriends. They frequently have read stories of love and loss and have a context in which to put this scenario. In fact, boys are more likely to get into trouble after a breakup. They also tend to be angry, puzzled and hurt, while girls tend to want to know what they did wrong, call and beg for one more chance, and generally harass the ex. That said, both boys and girls – and the dumper and dumpee – are more likely to experience a sense of loss, be cut off from friends, and engage in obsessive self-examination.

Q: Which is better - Asking your teen about the breakup or waiting for them to approach you?

If you know about the break-up, you should at least say something, such as, “I haven’t seen Suzie around lately. Did you break up?” This frees them from having to bring up a tough subject on their own. From that point, it’s sort of up to your teen. Some teens will start talking and won’t be able to stop while other teens won’t want to talk about it at all. In either case, let your teen know that you’ll always be there for him or her, whenever they’re ready to talk.

Q: How should I advise my teen on dealing with break-ups online through social media and with friends? What do I do if I see my teen badmouthing his or her ex?

This is a time to counsel your child to go easy on things like Facebook status updates. The newly single – of any age – shouldn’t rush to the internet to announce his breakup. Taking a “technology timeout” might be a good piece of advice, because even if your child isn’t badmouthing his ex on the internet, his friends may be. Keeping the relationship out of the public eye might be the best thing for everyone. If you do see your child badmouthing her ex, treat her comments like you would any other negative comments. Remind her that it’s hurtful to others and reflects badly on her when she badmouths her ex – or anyone else for that matter – and help her deal with her grief and anger by listening, or encouraging her to talk to a few close friends that she can trust.

Q: Is if ever ok to influence my teen to break up with a significant other? (What are signs of abuse)?

If you are afraid your child is in an abusive relationship, you should intervene, because, after all, keeping your child safe is one of the primary jobs parents have. The warning signs that a relationship may be abusive include:

  • A decline in your child’s grades or school attendance
  • Your child ONLY spends time with the girl/boy friend
  • Your child makes important decisions (i.e., where to attend college, types of extracurricular activities, friends) based on the reaction of the other person, and doesn’t feel happy about his or her decision
  • Your child receives excessive texts and seems upset or nervous about them
  • Your child has increased anxiety, depression or other emotional issues
  • Your child feels guilty and self-blaming every time the boy/girl friend is upset
  • There are signs of physical injury.

Q: How can you tell when your teen isn’t coping well with a break-up?

Parents should pay attention when their teens appear to be feeling extremely sad, hopeless or worthless. If a teen seems upset for long periods of time and can’t shake off what looks like a depression, parents should seek help. Other red flags include signs of drug abuse, too much or too little sleeping, and disinterest in things the teen used to love.

Q: What are some coping strategies I can advise my teen about when dealing with a break up?

One of the most important things you can encourage your child to do is talk it out. That doesn’t mean over Facebook or through texts, but by talking to you or their close friends. Research has also shown that writing in a journal about a breakup can help people move past the pain. Another coping strategy is to make sure they take care of themselves, by engaging in extracurricular activities and sports. Most importantly, make sure they do things they love doing. After a break-up, it can be hard for teens to get excited about the things they loved pre-split, but help them remember what those things are and encourage them to get out and do them – even if they don’t feel like it.

Q: How do I as a parent cope with seeing my heart’s broken?

First of all, remember this might end up being tougher on you than it is on them. Second, it’s notyourbreakup. It can be so painful for parents to watch their children experience pain. Watching your child experience a breakup is often the first time parents are really seeing their child as an emerging adult who is feeling adult-like pain. Take comfort in the fact that nearly everyone gets through that first breakup and comes out a little stronger and better for it. Take the long view – breakups are part of life and teach important lessons. Through heartache, we learn to forgive others and ourselves. We become more resilient in the face of challenges. These are important lessons and the alternative – to never have loved and never have lost – isn’t really an easier alternative.


Back to Top