Helping teens mend broken hearts

January 5, 2010

A reader inquires, “Do you think Privilege of Parenting could offer some advice on how best to advise or help teens get over relationship break ups?  Last year my daughter broke off a short relationship with some kid who was so upset that she became upset and extremely depressed.  This year, her boyfriend of one month, a senior who had been very affectionate and attentive, suddenly and unexpectedly (even HIS friends were surprised) decided to break up with her the last day of school prior to winter break.  Obviously this kind of stuff is going to happen more than once or twice and I have not had to deal with it before, as my son has never really had a “girlfriend.”  I’m not great with this sort of stuff but want to be as helpful as possible and would appreciate any advice.  She is doing better now but the holidays were awful at times as a result.   The fact he lives just down the street doesn’t help much either.”


Okay, full disclosure—this particular reader was my girlfriend thirty years ago, and we’re both married to other people now, so obviously we “broke up” ourselves, once upon a time.  What I find particularly sweet about the question is how life can take us full circle, past our own feelings and into trying to help the next generation with their feelings.

In the service of this heartsick girl, I would suggest considering the following things:

Lead with compassion:  Even though as adults we generally have a broader perspective on love (or at least a somewhat skeptical eye on puppy love) we need to try to remember how intense life, love and loss felt to us when we were young. 

Thus our first step in helping is to validate how this loss hurts.

Yes, amongst ourselves we may not be able to help but observe that teen love can be a bit on the shallow side, sensitive kids feel things very deeply and thus their feelings of heartbreak and angst are extremely real.

Recently I referenced “Romeo and Juliet” as a story about powerful love in a conversation with my teen son, who made the counterpoint that Romeo and Juliet were really only into appearances and their love, arguably, was shallow and narcissistic (but maybe that’s just proof that English class kills love).  When working with teens in the past who were crazy in love, I would often ask them what it was about their beloved that they loved so much.  The answers were always very effusive, but exceptionally… vague.

Even for adults, “love” turns out often to be projection; it’s after the projection subsides to a reasonable pulse that we might really get to know the other person and find out if we might truly love them and not just our anima or animus.

I recently saw Dan in Real Life and in it a teen daughter falls madly in love in a couple of days, but Dan, her dad, keeps insisting that it isn’t real.  The irony is that he too falls madly in love after just three days, and so he has to learn that love is real and possible (at least for him).

Avoid advice:  This includes avoiding platitudes like “there’s a lot of fish in the sea,” or “it just wasn’t meant to be.”  Remember, cheering people up tends to backfire. 

Although we want to listen in ways that get our kids to talk, another thing to offer to a heartsick kid might be the suggestion to write down all the overflowing feelings in a journal—perhaps a “letter” (a text to Self, not for sending) expressing all the anger and/or about what they wish the other knew of their love, hurt, depth, etc.  These are often truly letters to the Self anyway, thus articulating feelings from the deepest place of authenticity, which facilitates the individuation process. 

Koan:  a teen girl is heartbroken and then slips on a frozen lake and cannot get up.  Everyone tries to pull her up but they just fall down too.  Then an old Chinese Monk comes along and lies down next to her on the ice.  She gets up.

The Monk is still there, freezing:  welcome to parenting teens.

Also, never bash the boy or girl; for one they represent a beloved part of our own child’s Self (as right they should), but for another thing they are always potentially at risk of getting back together in the eternal drama that is love, and not just young love.

Be the bowl:  Think of all the spillover feelings that come your way when your child is heartbroken:  we are chopped liver and of little comfort or consequence; we feel sad and helpless to do anything to fix it; we might feel rejected by our kid when they shut us out or turn into help-rejecting complainers.

Well, these feelings that our child’s wounds evoke in us can also be thought of as an unconscious, almost psychic, transmission of that kid’s feelings.  If we think about how we feel, we might be getting a good picture of their experience.  If we reflect these feelings:  “It sounds like you just feel broken and wrecked,” or “It’s so confusing when you really care about someone and they turn so cold.”  If you get it right, your kid will look at you in a way, or say something to suggest that you are making real contact with the way they actually feel.  This is the essence of healing, as we are hurt in the context of relationships and we heal in the context of relationships.

We never want to minimize our kids’ feelings.  While there is nothing in this story to suggest looming danger, I have known of kids as young as middle school who got dumped and literally killed themselves.  Always take any mention of self-harm seriously; this is a complicated arena in itself (worthy of a future post), but for now suffice it to say that any time there is any doubt about a child’s safety from their own self-destructive impulses call their doctor or call 911—and keep them in sight until you’re confident they are safe within themselves.

Don’t be afraid to ask about this.  Most kids will quickly deny that idea, but if they don’t just push it away, it was good that you asked.  No one just gets the idea from the question either.  Better safe than sorry and in parenting, safety is always the very top priority.  Note:  some readers may be put off by linking puppy love and suicide, but keep in mind that amongst teens and young adults suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death (after unintentional injuries and homicide) compared with the 11th leading cause amongst the population overall.

Be conscious:  Our kids tend to drag us by the hair back through our own childhoods, our heads painfully bumping over every rock and staircase we once tripped over and fell down. 

The more we are aware of our own wounds, the more clearly we can contain our children’s feelings and avoid projecting our unresolved baggage onto them.  On the other hand, by helping our kids mature, we further our own development, this time at more spiritual, heart-mind level than at the hormonal sex-body-ego level of early life.  It’s not that we grown-ups no longer have a pulse, it’s that we might learn the very essence of love through parenting, which can circle back to make our romantic relationships more vibrant and authentic.

In the service of better love, when the dust settles and hearts heal (as Woody Allen said, “The heart is a resilient little muscle”), it might be worth talking with our kids about communication.  By tasting pain, we might learn what not to do to others moving forward.  If we want to break up with someone, then we must tell him or her (and this is still better than betraying the other).  Others deserve to be with someone who truly wants to be with them, and we should treat others as we wish to be treated (i.e. no one wants charity love).

We can encourage our kids to love bravely—validating them in their hurt, but also commending them for risking, attaching, caring.  There is no shame in being dumped (there is pain, in high school perhaps humiliation as everything feels like a fishbowl); if we love hard and learn that we can take it when we’re jilted, eventually someone will return our love and match our sincerity—perhaps even if it’s that only half-known person we run into now and again at the mirror.

Finally, it might be nice to point out that even though our kid is hurting so deeply after being dumped, it truly is great that they are alive and able to feel so much.

So, let’s dedicate today to love—dispensing with all judgment about what it is and isn’t, about who is or isn’t really in love—sending love to all who are heartbroken, any and all of our collective children, not to mention the grown-ups who love them, often limping along with our own issues.  None of us can make others love us, but all of us are free to love the world and love it hard.

Namaste, Bruce

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

BigLittleWolf January 5, 2010 at 9:35 am

I have encountered this with my elder, who was willing to talk more about it when it occurred. It happened fairly recently with my younger, who is by nature more tight-lipped. All I could offer were a very few words, and my “presence” if he needed me, though I watched him – in a way – care for himself, and not isolate himself. I made sure I did not pry, which I think matters – at least for my sons.

I will say (and just wrote on this) – the entire Facebook relationship status / FB public airing of personal situations is problematic. Adults slip into it, and our teens even more so – all of which makes a breakup more difficult, in light of its public nature.


Cheryl April 17, 2013 at 6:36 pm

I am so happy I came across this as I constantly need to be reminded to SHUT UP & just listen. I talk WAAAYYY too much, and it just makes things worse. I hear “I should never tell you anything”, or “You just don’t understand” when in truth, I do!! I am sooo busy trying to say a magic word or phrase that will make my daughter feel better, when I KNOW she won’t–not yet. I, of all people, know that time is the balm which ultimately eases pain. I need to do what you say here, and just reflect her feelings, give her some validation, and not minimize what she is going through. In turn, she will become more compassionate. THANK YOU. I’m off to try to undo some damage…wish me luck!


Bruce April 18, 2013 at 6:35 am

HI Cheryl,

I do indeed wish you luck, and I’m pleased to join you in striving to follow my own “advice” (which is more like the wisdom of nature, which generally seems more patient in the form of the so-called “natural world” of trees, animals, etc.).

I would also note that when we grown-ups are compassionately connected with each other, maybe it makes it a little easier to tolerate our children’s growing pains and other pains that we feel powerless, and therefore a little heart-broken, in the face of.

More and more I am both humbled by everything and encouraged by everything. In loving those in frustrated pain, a gentle attempt for containing and compassionate quiet is probably more on point than our inner critic voice shouting “SHUT UP” (like a “well-meaning” email in ALL CAPS!!! from our own inner parent, that frustrated soul trying to love us and make our fears and loneliness all better).

We try to be quiet at the right moments, but we parents are free to talk amongst ourselves, especially in the service of those we love, or so it seems :)

And we’re free to use all caps when we feel a lot and hopefully not be misunderstood.



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