Maybe it’s not the same for all parents. But when my kids’ hearts hurt, I feel it in my own heart. Whatever they go through — problems with friends, crushes, self-image — brings my own teen years whooshing up through the decades, like something escaped from a grave, to swallow me again.
I tell myself I want to end their pain for their sake, and I do. But also I want my own empathetic misery to stop. It’s not pretty, but there it is.
So I’ve been scared of them having first loves and first heartbreaks. Because I know it will call up that day in 1979 when Scott Lockwood told me he was in love with my best friend and everything inside my skin melted into a giant puddle of pain. And I have SO Find more family news on the Mama Drama blog. moved past all that. It was my childhood, for Pete’s sake. But I remember it enough to dread my kids going through it.
I’ve avoided it so far. They’ve all had crushes but no serious loves. I’ve imagined that if my 18-year-old daughter had a broken heart I would listen and hold her while she cried. We would watch empowering post-breakup recovery movies. And eat cookie dough — no lectures please.
But what would I do if it were my sons, who are 20 and 15? They process things differently. Should I buy them a new video game? Take them rock climbing? Just be ready for those moments when, all of a sudden, they start talking?
And most of all, would I be tempted to tell them this is just teenage stuff and it doesn’t mean anything … not because I believe that, but because I’m selfishly trying to make the pain stop? To force them past it and be happy again?
Because I haven’t experienced this with my kids, I asked Austin therapist Greg Miller, who specializes in addictions and adolescent therapy, what parents should do. I was right. You can’t rush it.
“Having your first heartbreak as a teenager is epic. Epic. It’s up there with someone dying … It’s the most excruciating kind of pain. Some of us can remember that and some of us can’t,” Miller said. As adults, he said, we know that you survive and you move on and it’s not actually the end of the world. But a teenager can’t possibly have that perspective.
So you should listen, without judging. Don’t try to talk them out of it or minimize it. They need to be validated.
But what if there are complications? What if a boy feels like he can’t talk about it? If he just shuts himself up in his room with his guitar? Miller said that’s when a lot of parents bring their kids to him.
“Boys tend to have much harder time opening up than girls,” Miller said. “That’s one of the reasons people like me are in business. … Boys, in particular want to open up once they have the opportunity to do so with someone they feel safe with, and often that’s not Mom and Dad.”
One tactic he and other therapists use is to verbalize what a boy might be thinking, like:
“I know this must really suck for you. This is really hard.” Then you wait, and listen.
Sometimes, they don’t talk. As long as they’re not showing signs of a depression, like falling grades or acting out, you might just need to wait. As Miller said: “It’s an appropriate thing to be bummed out about.”
But what if your teen stalks the ex on Facebook, calls, keeps hoping the ex will return? Do you let her, as I asked Miller, “bang her head against the wall … or do you stop it?”
“Let her bang her head against a wall for a little while,” he advised. “It might be what they have to do to move on. They continue, in small or large ways, to connect with that person because sometimes it needs to hurt more before they can let go.”
Swell. And how long does that take? What if it goes on forever? What if they don’t seem to be recovering? How long is too long?
If they mention suicide, lose weight or their grades drop, if they can’t get out of bed or don’t seem to be improving, it might be time to take them to a professional. Otherwise, Miller said, they need love and patience.
“Part of what you need with a breakup is time to heal,” he said. “Part of what you need is just get through it and live through it.”
That’s the only way you really get to the other side and realize that you do live through it.
And by the way, Scott Lockwood, if you are reading this: I am so over you.