Understanding Teens' Feelings after Break Up & How to Help Them Cope
The end of a relationship, whether it's your teen's first true love or a summer fling, can be heart wrenching for someone young who's just learning about heartbreak. They're flying high on the wings of love one minute, and then they crash into a sea of heartache the next.
Teenage relationships are similar to adult relationships in many ways: when things are going well, they're exciting and exhilarating, but when they end, they can be devastating. Seeing our teenagers go through this can be painful.
As distressing as it is to witness, these changes in relationships during adolescence are normal and even necessary. It can help your teens learn boundaries, communicate more effectively, provide and receive care, and further build their identity.
The main thing is to find a good balance between being a supportive parent and allowing them to work through it on their own.
What a Broken Heart Looks Like
The universal emotional response to unwanted, sudden, or unexpected loss of love is often marked by deep longing, hurt, and/or desire for the ex (or unrequited love).
And, it can hurt like hell. Some people feel as if their entire world is crumbling around them.
In so many occasions, people resist mending their broken heart because the pain is so intense and recovery appears so difficult, hence they avoid healing their broken heart altogether. This avoidance can have a number of unwanted side effects, including (but not limited to): complicated emotional responses, withdrawal, greater internal conflict, and difficulty in future relationships.
How Teen Boys and Teen Girls Respond Differently to Heartache
Girl teenagers are thought to be more reliant on tight relationships than guy teenagers, therefore, a breakup is believed to hurt them more. However, this is just one of many prevalent assumptions about what girls and boys feel that turn out to be inaccurate.
In fact, in terms of romantic relationships, teen girls are less fragile than young boys after a breakup. Those working on the front lines of adolescent mental health have recognized this for many years. “The boys fall apart when they break up with a girlfriend. They can’t study. They [sometimes] start to drink. If they come to me with problems about their work or their parents, I can help them. But when they come saying they’ve just broken up with a girlfriend, I see a red flag,“ a high-school counselor explained.
The difference is that teen girls have a larger social network to draw upon. Close friends serve as emotional co-regulators. Friends help them reflect on their feelings through intimate conversations —engaging the brain's executive functions, which then eases anxiety and despair.
Boys, on the other hand, are more reliant on a love partner, who may be their sole resource of intimacy, because they tend to shut down friendship intimacies in later adolescence when the 'man code' enforces its expectations to be "tough" and "independent" and to shoulder emotional burdens in silence. Plus, young boys have more steady friendships and are not accustomed to the roller coaster of rupture-and-repair that girls already often learned in late childhood. Hence, a first romantic breakup becomes a trauma which takes them a long time to process.
Teen girls and teen boys also use different languages when describing a breakup. Girls say it's a "shock" or "really hard" and admit they feel "stuck" or "lost." Boys use words like "shipwrecked" and "tailspin" and "falling apart" —implying disorientation and severe disruption. The rejection of a lover jeopardizes their identity, health, and mood.
In both scenarios, no one should add to their loneliness by downplaying their pain.
Parents of heartbroken teens may also read: Work out Your Emotional Resilience
What Can Parents do to help their Teens Deal with a Broken Heart?
Fortunately, you can use a breakup as an opportunity to enlighten your teen about dealing with rejection, pain, disappointment, and other feelings that accompany the end of a relationship. Of course, you'd want to avoid doing anything that will make your teen feel far worse.
Here are ideas on how to do that:
1. Be a good listener.
Your teen doesn't need you to take charge, or tell them how they should feel, or tell them what you would do/feel if you were in their place. Allowing your teen to speak without interjecting your ideas or analyses is even better than trying to say the "right" thing.
They need time and a safe space to express their hurt, confusion, frustration, and any other feelings they experience without having anyone second-guessing or clouding their thoughts. They don't need anyone to filter their feelings or put them in perspective —time will do that for them. Simply encourage them to vent and open up to you, but understand that it's normal if your teen isn't willing to share every detail.
A non-judgmental listening ear and gentle guidance are the best gifts you can offer to your heartbroken child.
2. Validate your teens' feelings.
Resist the impulse to downplay your teen's feelings. Just because you think the relationship wasn't that important or that it wouldn't endure forever does not mean your teen didn't have strong feelings about their ex. While it's unlikely they would have lived happily ever after, your teen may have believed they would. Regardless, their pain is real and significant.
Validate their feelings by saying, "I know this is hard" or "I understand how sad this makes you feel" instead of "high school relationships don't usually work out anyway." Minimizing their feelings will only make them feel misunderstood and more alone. Instead, inspire in them hope for the future so they know they will not feel this way forever. At the same time, don't advise them to hide or avoid their unpleasant emotions. The grieving process will help in their healing.
3. Be anti-social media
In today's tech age, some teens rush to update their relationship status and disclose details about their lives on social media.
Talk to your teen about taking a tech holiday in the days (or possibly weeks) following the breakup to avoid posting any updates they'll regret —or to avoid any online shaming or backlash.
Advise them, particularly, about not badmouthing their ex, discussing anything personal discovered during the relationship, or posting private details about the breakup. Teens often lack the maturity to know how to respectfully handle a breakup. They may need your guidance in making sound judgments regarding public disclosure of the relationship (and its demise).
4. Help them find a balance.
Your initial reaction might be to shower your teen with well-meaning, reassuring remarks like "you can do better" or "there are plenty of fish in the sea" or "they weren't suited for you anyways." These aren't generally helpful. Saying "I told you so" isn't helpful or supportive, either.
Criticizing your teen's ex will almost certainly make them feel much worse. And they're more inclined to be defensive and less willing to confide in you.
5. Prepare for the roller coaster.
Things should calm down after the first few days of tears, silence, angry breakup music, and/or whatever loss or heartache looks like for your teen—until your adolescent has another awful day. They will most likely go through cycles and intervals of feeling okay about the broken relationship before being distraught again.
This emotional roller coaster is quite normal. Don’t be surprised if they go through a few of these episodes before their mood levels out for good. The primary thing for you and your teen to appreciate is that breakups (and similar emotional highs & lows) are a natural part of life.
6. Give them some distractions.
There's nothing like creating a distraction to take your teen's mind from their breakup. Take them out for a day of fun in town or outdoors. You may go to a movie, go shopping, watch a baseball game, or go for a hike. Take them out to their favorite restaurant or bake a special dessert together.
Not only does activity keep your teen away from wallowing and away from social media, but it also shows them that life is pretty awesome —even if they don't have a boyfriend/girlfriend.
7. Get back into routine.
Encourage your teen to resume their regular daily routine after they've had several days to grieve. Fun days out can help distract, but so can chores, homework, family outings, and sports activities. Keeping life as normal as possible helps in the healing process.
While remaining mindful of your teen's feelings, strive to treat them as normally as possible. Using kid gloves for too long or bringing "it" up too frequently may serve as an unwelcome reminder of their recent heartbreak.
Teenage love can be exhilarating, but teen heartbreak can truly cut deeply. Support your child through this tough time by showing them love, patience, and compassion. Acknowledge that you do not need to save them from their emotions. In fact, facing these prickly feelings is an essential part of the healing process.
If, however, they are isolating themselves to the extent of not seeing family or friends, it's critical to seek professional help. Therapy is available for your teen at JarvisHypnotherapy.