Parenting teenagers is like having a front row seat to life’s greatest drama. This is the age when your teen’s first boyfriend or girlfriend enters the picture—and then exits stage left. How do you help your teen realize that, even though it might be curtains down on this relationship, the show will go on?
When Corrine Simko’s daughter Katie, 17, first realized the guy she was seeing just wanted to be friends, she shut herself in her room, crying, and wouldn’t talk to anyone or tell them what was going on. “My heart broke for her,” says Simko, a parent of three in Windsor, Ont. “But she wouldn’t accept any consoling from me. I know how hurt she was, but she seemed to think she had to keep up a strong front for us.”
The first time your teen suffers a broken heart is, in fact, the first time. You know he’ll survive. But your teen has no experience here; how’s he supposed to know that he’ll get over it?
“It can be a devastating loss,” says Dr. Mackenzie Brooks, a registered psychologist and life and business coach in Victoria. “It can be an acute and all-encompassing feeling of loss or rejection. The relationship is gone and their identity as being part of a couple has been taken away. The first time it happens, they may feel like they’re not going to make it through.”
And while it’s natural for parents to feel protective and want to make it all better, a broken heart isn’t like a skinned knee. “You have to be careful not to try to fix it,” says Simko. “You have to sit back and let them feel their feelings.”
“The five stages of grief apply here,” says Dr. Brooks. “Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. There’s an inner journey of letting go and being in the world solo.” Dr. Brooks adds, “The person who chose to end the relationship has probably gone through the grief stages prior to ending it too.” But even though their feelings of loss may not be as acute, they’re still feeling it. Even if your teen was the one doing the breaking up, that doesn’t mean her heart’s not broken too.
It’s important to remember that everyone moves through these stages at their own pace. If you’re concerned about how long your teen is taking to “get over it,” try to calibrate it to previous examples of your teen dealing with loss, like the death of a family member or other grief experience.
“Katie tends to isolate herself in times like this anyway,” says Simko, who’s been through this before, with her older daughter, now 19. “With Sabrina it was totally different; everything’s right out there with her. If she’d been the one shutting herself in her room to cry alone, I would have been worried.”
If you see signs that your teen is becoming obsessed by the loss, such as stalking the other person or slandering them online, it could be an indication that your teen needs some additional help in getting through this change. Any mention of depression or suicide, or use of alcohol or drugs to escape her feelings, should be addressed immediately, possibly with a professional’s help.
With three daughters aged 18, 15 and 11, Shelley Divnich Haggert is sure to encounter a broken-hearted teen sooner or later.
Adolescents need to learn to navigate through these feelings. Here are some suggestions for parents wanting to help: