I’ll never forget the night my freshman year in college when the guy I thought I was going to marry told me he’d met someone else. It was only a little over a month into the school year, and I was sitting on the floor of the bathroom I shared with my suitemates, the cord from the wall phone in my dorm room stretched as far as it would reach. Hunched on the cold tile, through my rather hysterical sobbing, I heard him tell me we were over.
At the time, I thought I couldn’t possibly know any sorrow worse than that…until it happened to my daughter. And until it happened in our house, where I could watch her pain unfold right in front of me.
Of course, there are all different kinds of heartbreak. Our kids’ significant others break up with them. Friendships end. Dreams don’t come true. Plans are derailed. Whatever it is that breaks our kids’ hearts, as parents there’s often not much we can do—which is where the power of our words has to carry the day.
Here are 10 things that might help when your son or daughter’s heart is hurting…even though you probably hope with all your heart you never need to say them.
What to Say When Your Kid’s Heart is Broken
1. I’m so sorry.
Whether or not we as parents have played any part in what’s broken our kids’ hearts, we want them to know that when they’re hurting, we’re hurting right along with them. Usually when I say “I’m sorry” to my girls, they respond, “It’s not your fault.” And I tell them, “I’m not sorry because this is my fault. I’m sorry because what matters to you matters to me. And I want you to know I’m in this with you.”
2. Do you want me to…?
Mail you a care package? Hold you while you cry? Listen while you vent? A couple days after my breakup, my dad called me at school. This was a big deal, because even though I had a great relationship with him and he was always a loving, affectionate parent, it was usually my mom who called first. But on the phone that day, my dad asked, “Do you want me to come get you and bring you home this weekend? I could take Friday off and drive down.”
Even all these years later, I still get choked up thinking about it. That my dad would have this thought. That he would make the call. That he would be willing to take the day off and drive all the way down and then bring me all the way back after only one full day. I didn’t really need him to come get me, but until he asked, I had no idea how much I needed him to offer to come get me. His willingness to show his love in this sacrificial way launched my heart toward healing. Your brokenhearted child might not need you to do anything, but they might need you to offer to do something.
3. You won’t feel like this forever.
But go ahead and feel like it for a while. There’s a time for feeling, and there’s a time for fixing. Our hurting kids need encouragement to spend some time in sadness or anger or bitterness and assurance that someday, they will feel better.
4. Do you want to try again?
Maybe this is only a bump in the road, not the end of it.
5. If you want to give this another go, what can you do now to get ready for then?
Whether “this” is a personal relationship or a college application or making the cut for a team or achieving some artistic goal, if our disappointed kids want to take another shot, what action can they take to improve their aim? Rehearse what they’ll say to that other person? Rewrite their admissions essay? Work out harder? Take more lessons?
6. Do you just want to be done?
We live in a “never-give-up” culture. But maybe your heartbroken child needs you to tell them there’s no shame in moving on when that’s the wisest decision. You’re not necessarily denying them their future happiness; you might just be preserving their present happiness.
7. Do you want to try something else?
Another sport or another college or another friend? If letting go is the best first course of action, taking hold of something new can be a healing follow-up.
8. Something good will come out of this. (But it’s OK if that seems impossible right now.)
After our hurting kids have had time to grieve what they’ve lost, there’s hope to be found in thinking about what they can gain. It didn’t take me very long after that night on my bathroom floor to realize that as spouses, my former boyfriend and I would have been a disaster, because we both had uptight, over-reactive personalities. If we’d gotten married, we would have lived in constant crisis mode. Instead, I married a man who counteracts my reactionary, freak-out nature with his own calm assurance that everything will be fine. As partners in life, we generally meet in the middle and balance each other out. I lost something I cared about that night in college, but I gained something greater because of it.
9. This is not all of who you are, and it is not only who you are.
Your hurting child may be the ex-love interest or the wait-listed student or the understudy or the benchwarmer. But what describes them in part does not define them as a whole.
10. I love you.
It’s what we say as parents when we don’t know what else to say and even when we do know what else to say, because it’s the beginning and the end and the foundation for everything worth saying in between.
Elizabeth Spencer is mom to two teenage daughters. She’s been married for 21 years to a very patient husband who carries on valiantly as the token male in a house of estrogen. When she’s not avoiding housework by spending time on her blog, Guilty Chocoholic Mama, or on Facebook, she plays the piano badly, bakes chocolate-chip cookie that cover a multitude of maternal sins, and tries to keep up her lone talent of being able to stand on her head.