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Help Your Teen with Heartbreak

Helping Your Teen Get Over a Break-up and Steer Them Towards a Healthy Relationship

Dredge up your first romantic disappointment. Remember the pain and unhappiness of breaking up – the uncertainty? Heather Winne of Indiana recalls feeling devastated after her first "true love" dumped her. "My mom came into my room carrying a beautiful silk nightgown and handed it to me, gave me a hug and said, 'I know you are feeling very heartbroken. I thought you could use something to make you feel beautiful right now.'" The nightgown didn't make Winne's hurt go away but she knew that her mother understood and cared about her feelings. "I'll never forget it," Winne says.

I eye my three young sons defensively, not wanting anyone to break their hearts. But eventually somebody will. Broken relationships happen to everyone, and the first taste is usually during adolescence. What can a parent do to help a heartbroken teen?

"As much as you want to make it all better for your teen, give her space," says Gilda Carle, Ph.D. "Tell him or her that break-ups are hard and you are there for him whenever he wants to speak to you. Then let go."

Teenage girls often cope with break-ups by talking on the phone with their friends or diving into the Internet for marathon chat sessions. "They review all the hurts and pains, which is soothing," Carle says.

Margaret Loudon of New Jersey, went through a break up with her daughter and watched her cope with social activites. "My daughter went off to camp right after her break-up," Loudon says. "She basically threw herself into the activities there. She really reconnected with good girlfriends who have been her mainstay during the whole process. She said that being with all girls was the best thing that could have happened at that particular time."

Boys react to broken relationships differently. "Boys often become angry since that, unfortunately, is the only emotional option that society sanctions for boys," Carle says. Some boys hide their pain.

Kerch McConlogue of Maryland learned about her 16-year-old son's break-up by accident. "We knew it was over because when we talked to him about the expensive long-distance phone bills he said, 'That won't be a problem anymore,'" she says. McConlogue didn't pry into the details of her son's romance because he was very private about it. She did let him discuss it when he wanted to. "Respect your teen," she says. "When a relationship breaks up it takes time to get over it, and the only way to get through that is to get through it."

Sometimes teenagers get into trouble while trying to feel accepted again or win back a loved one. Courting trouble is one way parents can tell a love-sick teen isn't coping well. The National Mental Health Awareness Campaign warns parents to pay attention to teens feeling extremely sad, hopeless or worthless. Carle advises intervening if a teen seems upset for a long period of time and can't shake obvious depression. Keep reaching out to troubled teenagers. "At first teens will reject a parent's attempts at intervention," she says. "Don't be afraid to insist."

Parents should set boundaries that teens must abide by and it's OK for teens to react negatively to the boundaries. "Tough love is actually interpreted by the teen mind as love," Carle says. "In contrast, giving your teen freedom is interpreted as parental disinterest." She warns that sometimes what teenagers say they want – or don't want – is not truly what they want.

Other red flags signaling a problem with coping are signs of drug abuse, continued sleeping and disinterest in things the teen used to love.

Heartbroken teens sometimes lash out when parents try to help. Carle reminds upset teens that parents are on their side and have their health and happiness at heart. When teens tell Carle that their parents are driving them crazy, she has them imagine their parents not caring at all. "Growing up involves making choices," she says. "They can either choose to allow their parents to be their ally – or guardian angel – or their tormentor. Their choice. In reality, who wouldn't want a guardian angel from time to time?"

Teen break-ups can cause heart-wrenching pain, but eventually teenagers should be ready to date again. How can you steer your child toward a healthy relationship? "Teens are likely to meet others like themselves through activities and club meetings," Loudon says. Her daughter's former boyfriend was very active at their YMCA and got her daughter involved in the Leader's Club and the Teen Leader Camp. "I think that a teen with strong self-esteem is going to attract decent friends all around," she says.

Carle tells young girls, "We attract not who we want but who we are. The secret to attracting good guys is to become your own independent person who feels good about who she is and what she's about."

Carle says that before female teens can say, "I love you," they must first say, "I'm an IT girl". What's an IT girl? In Carle s words: "A girl who thinks well of herself, is confident when she is around others and doesn't 'think' but 'knows' that she can hold her own."

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