Everyone wants to find love. There is nothing more human than wanting to love and be loved. Teenagers are experiencing this for the very first time, and it can be intense and passionate. The emotions involved are real and often extreme, and teen relationships are often marked by plenty of ups, downs, and intensity.
It is not unusual for a teenager to find themselves planning out their future with someone, even though they are only 15 or 16 years old. The rational part of their brain knows that spending the rest of their life with someone they meet in 10th or 11th grade is unlikely, but their heart is telling them that this person is the one.
Unfortunately, first loves are often followed by first heartbreaks. It is almost inevitable that your teen will experience the devastation of a breakup at some point. When it happens, they will feel awful, like their world has come crashing down upon them. They will not know what to do or how to deal with it. It will occupy their thoughts and their dreams, and they won’t see an end in sight.
Do you even remember how awful it feels? You and I know that they will eventually be just fine, but there is no way they can imagine that during the initial heartbreak. One day you will be able to help them reflect back and hope that they learned something from the failed relationship, even if that knowledge doesn’t bring anyone comfort in the moment.
How can you help your teen cope with the end of a relationship? Let’s start with what not to do. As difficult as it might be to watch your child suffer in pain, just be there to listen and to comfort your grieving teen. Don’t offer unsolicited advice. Don’t say that you never liked their partner or that there are more fish in the sea. This is not helpful. Do normalize their grief and let them know how sorry you are that they are going through this.
It is important to recognize that the loss of a relationship is actually the death of hopes and dreams that they had with this person. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross describes 5 stages of grief. Normalize this for your teenager, and explain it to them. Give them permission to go through each and every stage in their own time. Respect them during the process, and be there to offer support. Nobody experiences this quite the same as another, but it seems that everyone eventually moves through these stages, not necessarily in any particular order. Talk to your teen about these stages and guide them through. Help them understand what to expect, and eventually there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.
- During this stage, they might be in a bit of shock that this breakup has happened. Maybe they thought things were going so well, and they feel blindsided. Perhaps there were signs of trouble that they just ignored, because they were sure it would get better. They’re feeling like this cannot be happening, and teens will often continue to pursue their former partner during this time, sometimes even obsessively, as if they could not live without him or her.
- This is the part when they get mad. Really mad. They might blame their former partner and have some choice words for them. They might even blame themselves and feel stupid for having allowed themselves to be so vulnerable. Sometimes, they might have regrets about being intimate or having lost their virginity with this person. They might even blame you or another person for somehow messing up this relationship.
- This is also known as negotiating. During this stage, it is very common for teens to beg for their partner to return to them. Some of the things people often say when bargaining are, “Please just give me one more chance” or “I promise to change”. Basically, they are feeling like they would do just about anything if they could just hold on to this relationship.
- This stage is often marked by despair and isolation. This is when they will cry until they don’t think that they could possibly have any tears left. They have tried, but cannot fix it and cannot persuade their former partner to stay. It is over, and that is starting to sink in.
- They have felt the pain and maybe even learned and grown from the experience. They are no longer living in the past, wishing for something that is gone. Rather, they are ready to move forward, and have their eyes set on the future. They are hopeful about what will be happening in their life, and they are ready for a new potential partner.
Dealing with a breakup and all the feelings that come with it can be very difficult and painful, but all of that is completely normal. Remind your teen that there is nothing wrong with them, just that the relationship was wrong for them. Try not to allow them to isolate and wallow too much in their misery. Encourage them to accept support from friends and family, and surround themselves with those who really love them. Respect their boundaries. Try to have them get involved or stay involved in things that make them feel happy. And, just as you would if someone close to you died, give them permission to grieve, to feel the pain, and ultimately to heal.