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Teens: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

As teens begin dating, an all-too-frequent result is heartbreak when the relationship ends. While the dating and break-up cycle is often difficult, parental support can help to get a teen through it. Parents are especially helpful in teaching resiliency and how to bounce back.

In addition to romantic break-ups, falling out with friends as interests and values change can be traumatic in the teen years. While teens have heard plenty about romantic break-ups, the loss of a friendship can cause them to feel they have done something wrong. Drifting apart from friends is normal, but teens may need Mom’s and Dad’s help to work through their feelings and put it all in perspective.

Life Experiences

Sometimes teens move into and out of relationships without much fuss; kids just grow apart, and everything seems to take care of itself naturally. But break-ups are generally more traumatic for teenagers than they are for adults, says Michael Bradley, EdD, the Feasterville, PA author of When Things Get Crazy with your Teen (McGraw-Hill, $22.95). Adults can fall back on life experiences that teens just don’t have yet. Teens live in the moment, so right now feels like it will last forever.

While it can be difficult, going through break-ups are part of a teen’s healthy development. “Break-ups are one of the main ways that teens learn about what they want in relationships,” says D’Arcy Lyness, PhD, behavioral health editor at Nemours’ KidsHealth.org, based in Wilmington, DE. Importantly, they learn what works for them in a relationship, and what doesn’t.

Tech Break-ups

While parents remember their own teen romances, they likely didn’t have cell phones, texting or Facebook during their teen years. Joellyn Ross, PhD, a psychologist practicing in Cherry Hill, NJ, believes technology speeds things up in teen relationships, which can make break-ups even harder.

“In addition to heartbreak, they have public relations issues,” agrees Dr. Bradley. Because of the availability of instantaneous communication, things happen faster and play to a broader audience, perhaps including hundreds of “friends” on Facebook. “Teens get immersed in this and get overwhelmed by the details,” says Bradley.

Red Flags

While it’s perfectly normal for teens to be moody and to mope a bit after a break-up, keep an eye on your teen to make sure he does, in fact, bounce back. Seek help if:

The child seems to have dropped everything and has not resumed normal activities and school habits

There are significant changes in eating or sleeping habits.

Signs of isolation emerge. 

The teen really does not move on at all.

When BFFs Are Not Forever

According to Dr. Lyness, social life is basic to a teen’s identity, especially for girls. Because of this, falling out with “best friends forever” can be just as difficult, if not more difficult than romantic break-ups.

Kids don’t expect their friendships to change, so it comes as a bit of a shock when they do. But drifting apart is perfectly normal, says Dr. Ross. While a friendship may have worked at a younger age, reassure teens that friendships change and evolve as teens mature.

“The worst thing adults can do is to say,
‘Oh, you’ll get over it.’”

Trying to Relate

Many teens take break-ups in stride, but they can be very significant. “Don’t assume it’s devastating,” advises Dr. Lyness. On the other hand, “The worst thing adults can do is to say, ‘Oh, you’ll get over it,’” says Dr. Ross. When your teen has a broken heart, let her know that you’re there for support. Here are ways you can help.

Don’t minimize the relationship or the feelings resulting from the break-up, or you’ll give the impression that you don’t understand, or worse, that you don’t really care. “To the kid, it is the end of the world,” says Dr. Bradley.

Don’t be too anxious to make it better right away. Let feelings emerge, but be mindful not to rush the process. Be there to listen when they’re ready to talk, but don’t force it.

Listen without judgment, and hold back on negative comments about the recent ex. Don’t tell your teen how to feel based on your reaction. Instead, say, “That’s awful. You must be devastated.”

“Listen for negative self-judgments and gently correct those,” says Dr. Lyness. (For example, “He broke up with me because I’m not popular enough.”) It chips away at teens’ self-esteem to deal with the rejection of a break-up. Remind them of their strengths and good qualities, but be careful not to over-reassure.

Offer to help with problem solving, such as what to do or say when seeing the new ex. Dr. Bradley notes that teens lack control of their situation. They have to go to school where they’ll probably see their former friend. Adults are often better able to avoid this awkwardness soon after a break-up.

“Parents need to add perspective,” says Dr. Lyness. Seeing the big picture is a skill that teens do not yet have. Dr. Bradley suggests using a metaphor like the flu to illustrate. When you have the flu, you feel miserable and think you’re going to die, but you’ll feel better in a couple of days.

Encourage your teen to get together with friends. Friends’ support can be a big component in recovering from a break-up, says Dr. Ross.

Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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