My daughter came down the stairs, sobbing uncontrollably, her phone in her hand.
“Mom, what am I going to do?” she wailed.
She’d just texted her boyfriend of more than a year—the one she thought she might marry someday—and told him about a concern she had about their relationship, a weighty concern she’d been lugging around for awhile. He had not responded well. Then she’d called him. (Cross-country distance and other special circumstances prevented an in-person conversation.) Then he’d hung up on her. Then she’d texted him again. Then he’d told her, “I guess this is goodbye.” Then he’d changed his Facebook status from “in a relationship” with her to “single.” Then he’d deleted her pictures.
I’d thought I couldn’t know a worse pain than when my own heart had been abruptly broken over the phone by my high-school sweetheart when I wasn’t two months into my freshman year of college. But watching my daughter’s anguish, I knew how wrong I’d been about that. Maddeningly, that was about all I knew. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. As with most things about parenting, it’s only been in hindsight that I’ve figured out what worked and what didn’t.
5 Ways to Help a Teen Whose Heart Has Been Broken
Again and again in online groups for parents of older kids, I see the same question: “My teen’s heart is broken. What can I do to help?”
There’s no prescription for this. (If only.) But with the singular perspective that getting past something and then looking back can give you, here’s what I can see now helped us then.
1. Accept the fact that most of the things that will end up helping won’t feel like they’re doing anything in the moment. I know this probably isn’t what you want to read first thing on this list. I mean it by way of encouragement, because you’re going to have to fight yourself here. You’re going to have to do what you can and wish you could do more and feel so helpless. Just keep doing it. Pages into the book you’re now writing, it will all end up being a story of help and healing.
2. Be present. When someone has left your teen or young adult’s life, they need you to be there more than ever. “There” might be on a bed, holding a weeping child and supplying fresh tissues. “There” might be hovering nearby in the house, waiting to be summoned closer. “There” might be on the road, driving to wherever your heartbroken child is. “There” might be (or might have to be) on your phone, anytime, day or night. While you’re “there,” you might very well not be doing or saying anything. But presence speaks love loudly and deeply.
3. Don’t try to rush them past their hurt. As parents, we want to fix things, and we want to fix them NOW. Every instinct says, “Let’s move this process along! Let’s get to the other side today!” But grief—which is what this is, and grieving someone still alive is its own kind of brutal—must be given its due. It has no roadmap and no timetable. It cannot be gone around, only through. My natural bent as a mom when my children’s hearts are hurting—because I don’t want the people I love to be in pain— is to try to talk them out of that hurt. But they’ve shown me that what they really need is for me to sit with them IN it.
4. As long as everything is in flux anyway, throw in some good spontaneity. One Thanksgiving weekend, in the middle of one of my teens’ heartbreak moments, both my daughters and I loaded our pajama-clad selves into the car and drove at 10 o’clock at night to the drive-thru of a fast-food restaurant for milkshakes and French fries.
Along the way, we blasted the most upbeat Christmas music we could find and admired the holiday lights displays people in our neighborhood had just put up that day. It didn’t fix my teen’s problem. It didn’t even make her forget about it. But it layered laughter and love on top of it.
5. Check in…but probably not as often as you want to. A hundred times a day (by conservative estimate), you’ll want to ask, “Are you okay?” You’ll want to ask this not because you want your child to say they’re okay but because you will SO MUCH want them to BE okay. And they will be. One day. But this is in all likelihood not that day I wanted my daughter to know I was there for her and keeping tabs on her without her feeling like I was constantly hounding her for updates, expecting some grand overnight improvement.
I also knew it wasn’t going to help if I asked, “What’s wrong?” every time she looked upset. I knew what was wrong. Or I thought I did. So I told her, “I’m here to listen anytime you want to talk. I won’t badger you. But will you just promise me that if something new is wrong, you’ll tell me?” I needed to know that if I saw “something” on her face, she’d tell me if it was a new “something” or an understandable continuation of the old “something.”
We also got to the point where, if I just couldn’t stand the wondering and had to check in, all I had to do was say her ex-boyfriend’s name with an implied question mark, and she’d nod her head to let me know, “Yes, this is still what’s wrong. No, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Hold onto hope for a better day that, from where you’re both standing right now, might seem impossible. Months after my teen’s initial heartbreak moment (many months, to be perfectly honest, because the price of love is sometimes grief, and when it is, there’s no rushing through it), I got this text from her: “I’m really happy to have finally made it to this place.”
“This place” was not just where she felt her heart had healed. “This place” was also where she felt she had finally—finally—been able to forgive her heartbreaker. “This place” was where she was able to see what she’d gained from all she’d lost. And even though every step of the way there had felt like stumbling in the dark, “this place” was somewhere I knew we’d made it to together.
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