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Helping Your Teen Cope with Breakups

March 21, 2019 | Rachel Velishek, LPCC

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I am at the stage of parenting where being up all night is due to nightmares or illness. After celebrating my youngest son’s 5th birthday, it is apparent how fast time passes and I know that soon enough I will be dealing with hormonal teenagers and my restless nights will be due to worry, possible uncertainty, and the emotional “stability” of a teenager. I have often said the older a child gets, the more difficult they are to parent.

I recently wrote about speaking the truth to children and creating the opportunity to model healthy communication, emotional regulation, and honesty. Helping your teenager deal with a breakup is another opportunity for you as a parent to teach your child how to cope with pain, disappointment, rejection, hurt, confusion, and the roller coaster of emotions. We have all experienced pain and loss. We were all teenagers once but, our experience is not comparable to our children’s experience. We can empathize with the roller coaster of emotions, we can recall our own experience of loss, but what we experienced during our own adolescence is vastly different. Our children have instant communication, a breakup is viral news, and the time to process emotions and cope privately rarely exists.

One of the most beneficial things a parent can do to help their child cope with a break up is to validate their child’s emotions. This is not the time to recall your own past breakups. It is not appropriate to point out that you didn’t think the relationship would last. While the likelihood that your young teenager would have embarked in happily ever after forever love is minimal, it is important to recognize that your child might have believed it was possible. So, keep your own ego in check and do not lecture.

Listen to what your child says without judgment. Be patient, loving, open minded. Validating your teenager’s emotions means that you are acknowledging their feelings and you are giving your child permission to develop opinions, beliefs and thoughts without criticism, analysis, or judgment. Be sensitive to your teenager’s wants and needs, respect the space or time requested, do not challenge their statements, and do not argue your defense. Recognize that, to your teenager, this moment is all that matters. Do not minimize what they may be going through or dismiss the emotional struggle of coping with a breakup.

If you validate your teenager’s emotions they will feel heard, respected, and they will more than likely implement the change you want them to achieve. Validating your teenager’s emotions helps them develop confidence and build self-esteem.

Support the decision that your teenager has made. If your teenager initiated the break up they still have emotions to process. This is not the time to point out everything that you loved about the “ex” or that you believe your teenager made the wrong choice by choosing someone else. Support the decision your teenager makes. Stand by your child even if you disagree. Some of the most important lessons your teenager can learn are from mistakes they make. Allow them the opportunity to make their own decisions, learn from their mistakes, and embrace their choices. They need to learn from their own experiences who they are, what they want and need, and how to communicate and receive that from others.

Remember, as we have aged we have learned. From our own breakups, heartaches, and disappointments we have developed our perspective on life, love, and relationships. We have learned that life will continue. Our children deserve the same opportunity to learn, and experience. As parents, we don’t want to see our children hurt, suffer, and experience loss or pain but through that loss they will learn what real love is and what they deserve. Allow your child the time to experience the unpleasant emotions of a breakup. Let them cry, journal, and scream. Do not encourage them to run, forget about it, or just move on. The time they spend grieving and processing the pain of loss is time required to heal and recover. It is important to encourage that time so that as your teen develops relationships moving forward, they do not take the unresolved grief and loss from past with them.

Actively listen to your teenager. Pay attention without distraction, give your teenager your undivided attention. When we are actively listening we hear the message being communicated. We hear more than just the words being said. You cannot be distracted or prepare defense arguments in your own head while your child is speaking. While you are actively listening, you are 100 percent present in that moment, you are focusing on the words being said, the nonverbal cues, and you are maintaining eye contact.

As important as it is to allow your child the time to acknowledge the unpleasant emotions, it is also important to not let them wallow in their sorrows. Encourage your teenager to experience things they find fun or enjoyable such as sporting events, shopping, or socializing. It is important for your teenager to learn they can experience positive emotions in situations that do not involve the “ex.” It is important for your child to learn that functioning is not avoiding emotions, it is healing and experiencing all that life has to offer. After a few days of experiencing the emotional roller coaster and wallowing, encourage your teenager to resume their previous routine. Allow and encourage moments to talk about feelings and the adjustment back to normal, but also encourage them to continue pursuing personal goals previously developed such as academics or extracurricular activities. It will be normal for your teenager to have good and bad days. They may have a period of time where they truly feel “okay” and then, boom, you’re witnessing an emotional breakdown. This may happen a few times before it completely levels out. What matters is that they acknowledge the emotion, process feelings, and continue functioning.

If your teenager has been wallowing for more than 2 weeks or if they have been irritable or depressed, communicate your concerns. If you observe changes in your child’s sleep patterns and/or diet or if your child is having a difficult time resuming prior level of functioning or socializing, do not hesitate to reach out to a professional. It is important that your child learns that what is a normal emotional response to unpleasant emotions and when to seek professional help. Do not hesitate to contact a licensed mental health professional who specializes in adolescent therapy. Sometimes people just need to talk to someone new.

Rachel Velishek is a licensed professional clinical counselor with Fisher-Titus Behavioral Health, Fisher-Titus Medical Park 2, Suite C, 282 Benedict Ave., Norwalk. Her office can be reached at 419-668-0311. For more information on Fisher-Titus Behavioral Health, visit fishertitus.org/behavioral-health.