Help your teen turn that first breakup into a breakthrough
While the world goes mad for hearts and flowers this week, parents of teens take a more cautious approach to Valentine’s Day. Depending on the hour (or minute), their teen could be blissfully in love, vaguely lonely or totally heartbroken. Teen love keeps parents hopping.
“Relationships at this stage are very fleeting,” says psychiatrist Oscar Bukstein, MD, director of Child and Adolescent Services at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School. “Kids in adolescence change rapidly.”
More specifically, their brains are changing and growing, especially the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that guides planned behavior. Teen brains won’t completely mature until early adulthood. Hormones also kick in during the teen years, increasing risk-taking behavior and attraction to the opposite sex. Bukstein and his colleagues have a term for teens at this stage.
“Fast cars; poor brakes,” he laughs.
Or to reference Star Trek, they are all Kirk and no Spock. Teens lack the rational problem-solving skills to control their emotions. That’s why first relationships and breakups feel so intense. Teens can’t imagine falling in love again, or they don’t understand that a person is not right for them. They are all feelings, Bukstein says.
“It was devastating, because I had never experienced anything like it,” says Jordan Everett, 18, recalling her breakup with her first boyfriend. She was 16 and a junior in high school at the time. “When it came to an end, in a way that I didn’t want it to, I was really heartbroken. It was something I didn’t quite know how to handle.”
How to help
Many well-meaning parents don’t know how to handle teen breakups either—so they make the mistake of immediately offering advice. Instead, use the opportunity to listen, Bukstein says.
“Try to engage your adolescent in conversation and hear what he or she has to say,” he says. “There is a tendency to problem solve and to convince teens to get over it. But don’t be dismissive. I think however seemingly fleeting and unsubstantial the relationship seems, to teens, it is very important. Parents should acknowledge that.”
And sometimes that means letting teens deal with a breakup by themselves. Lisa Everett, Jordan’s mother, says she was totally prepared to help Jordan deal with her breakup. But she wanted to do it the right way. Everett was careful not to push Jordan to talk right after the breakup, because she feared the pain was too fresh.
“She did a lot of crying, and I asked if she had anything to talk about,” says Lisa. “She didn’t really want to do a lot of talking to me, in terms of specific details. So I didn’t pry. By the time I decided to talk to her more about it, she seemed to be over it.”
Jordan says it actually took the rest of her junior year in high school to get back to normal, but eventually she moved on and was wiser from the experience.
“I learned that I dedicated a lot of time to him that I shouldn’t have,” she says, adding that she had dated her ex-boyfriend for a year before they broke up. Jordan says she neglected her friendships and schoolwork during that time. “I realized that I should have time to myself, as well as the importance of keeping boundaries in relationships.”
Placing a high value on relationships causes some teen girls to feel more disappointment after a breakup than boys, Bukstein says, adding that female teenagers also may be dealing with hormonal swings. But that doesn't mean boys don't feel pain and angst in the aftermath of a breakup, he continues. They may keep their feelings private. Fortunately, most female and male teens bounce back from breakups quickly.
“Many teens and almost all parents feel that these relationships are not big deals, except for the vulnerable kids, for whom these life events are magnified,” Bukstein says, adding, “These are the kids for whom breakups can be a real catastrophe.”
Teens at high risk for taking a breakup hard include those with preexisting emotional and psychological problems. Bukstein says they are at higher risk for self-injury and suicide and should be monitored closely after a breakup. Teens who continue to struggle with a breakup months later may have lasting mood or other psychiatric problems and may need help right away.
“Then it is time for them to get to a professional for a mental health assessment. These are the critical times for risk,” he says.
But in most cases, parents should consider teen breakups not as something to protect their children from, but as essential experiences for their children. As painful as breakups seem, they teach teens about themselves and help them figure out what they like and don’t like in a romantic partner.
“They are practice for adulthood,” Bukstein says.