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How can I support my teen through a break up?

Help, our Year 10 child has recently broken up with her boyfriend and is very distressed. What can we do as parents to support her? I tried telling her that we have all been through such things, but this hasn’t helped!

Early teen romances can certainly feel exciting and exhilarating but most are also short-lived, and supporting our children through them is something we will likely have to do several times over the years to come. Here are some tips to help you to support your daughter.

The ‘Try not Tos.’

It is very easy to tell a 14/15 year old that she is ‘only young’ or that ‘these things happen’ in an effort to minimise the shock or heartbreak that she will be feeling and experiencing. Tempting though it may be, such an approach is more likely to exacerbate any feelings of isolation following the break up and may also mean she is less open to talking to you about it again. Yes, we as parents have experience of break ups ourselves and might consider such experiences ‘formative’, but revisiting such experiences comparatively isn’t helpful to your daughter.

Just be there for her. 

What does this look like in real life? It means observing her, watching her moods and facial expressions. It means simply taking the time to care. How are you doing today? Shall we go for a little walk and chat about it? Or shall we just have a cuddle? What can I do for you today to help you feel loved? It means giving your child time and space to grieve what was an important relationship to them. It means not pestering her to tell you what happened and instead reassuring her that you are there. It means validating how she might be feeling, rather than attempting to talk her out of the distress. Use statements such as: “I can see that you are upset and I can understand why”, “I can see you are a little bit anxious about seeing him again that is perfectly natural”. So instead of rescuing and diving into to help her fix it or solve it, you are simply letting her know that you recognise what she is going through and acknowledging that it will take time to get through it. 

Encourage her to ‘think first’ before communicating with the ex!

When relationships at this age and stage conclude, they might precede a period of ‘doing something about it’, which might mean firing off emails, text messages, letters or communicating with the person who has ended the relationship. If your child does express the wish to find out what happened or to tell the other person what they think of them, encourage to express their feelings but perhaps not to send them (just yet). Encourage them to write down how they feel if they are angry or upset and then to tear those pages up. It might even be a process you assist them with. “Has it helped?” or, “Does it help?” are questions to ask your child. They should be the ones leading the coping and recovery process; it is their grief. 

Focus on distraction and encourage interaction.

When we feel down in the dumps, there are lots of things that can enhance our mood and help us shake off our disappointment. These things vary from person to person. Our Coping Menu is brimming with ideas for them to consider with you. Encourage them to try a few out and ask, how does it feel? If your child is very distressed and angry about what has happened, have a look at this list of distraction ideas (carefully curated by Reading University) and originally designed for teens who self-harm. It contains some interesting ideas that can help reduce feelings of overwhelm. 

Work hard to gently distract your daughter with a few outdoor trips (nature heals!), some exciting little things to look forward to in the family diary, or even consider inviting over some friends or family that always seem to bring a smile to her face. 

Don’t be afraid to ‘Lean in’.

Breaking up with someone can be a deeply upsetting experience and we can’t take for granted that teens are coping when they simply say they are. We need to keep gently leaning in. Leaning in means asking, “How are you today? I have noticed you seem a little bit brighter today, is that the case?” Or, “I have noticed you seem very sad today, is that right?” It shows that you care and that you are there for them. If they tell you to stop asking them questions, then stop. If they don’t answer at all, and simply come for a cuddle or a hug, respond that hug back. Non-verbal communication might be incredibly important in this scenario. 

Keep relevant school staff informed.

Parent-teacher partnership really matters in situations like this. Following the distress of a breakup, a child might be more distracted at school, more forgetful and anxious. This is often because many young relationships happen in school. Teachers will want to know how she is doing and feeling, so that they can echo the support you have offered at home. Teachers should provide quick updates to worried parents about how their child is doing at school and keep the communication lines open. Should a child express a desire to avoid school because of the relationship, this might require a parent-teacher meeting. Avoidance will always exacerbate anxiety so helping them set little goals for the week ahead is a good joint operation between home and school. If a pupil is feeling wobbly, this Wobble Ladder might help to get them through the week. Class teachers might want to be aware that things have been difficult for the child in recent weeks and be sensitive to this in daily interactions and academic demands. In this way, and by working together, we can create a circle of support around a child until they recalibrate emotionally.

Whatever happens next, avoid sounding critical or too prescriptive.

The thing about young love is that it is entirely unpredictable. After a few weeks, this young couple might decide that they care for each other after all and consider getting back together. Rather than criticise or express your dismay, invite your teen to weigh up any decision regarding the relationship. You might find this problem-solving template (originally designed for friendship difficulties) useful when it comes to supporting them through the decision-making process about returning to the relationship. 

Imagine how secure, safe and loved they will feel with the optimal support that you give them through this experience. No matter what happens next, you remain their anchor and a reliable source of support and help. It is a compliment that your child feels able to talk to you, so keep up the good work and take care of yourself through this experience too. Doing our best as parents can be emotionally demanding for sure, so make sure there is someone to offer you a hug and a chat at the end of the day.