We engaged parents feel like we can be no happier than our least happy child. When our kids hurt, it seems like we hurt worse. Our love is a crazy, over-the-top kind of love that makes us lunatics sometimes. While there are probably important evolutionary benefits to our experiencing love to this degree (i.e., upon reflection of the reality in which we find ourselves as a parent, we might otherwise leave our kids at the hospital ;-), there are also disadvantages, unless we are careful. One such situation is when our kids are hurting. Because of the depth of our love we sometimes try to rush in and make the pain go away in ways that either deprive our kids of important outcomes or damage our relationship with them (e.g., see my entry Failure: An Important Part of a Psychologically Healthy Childhood). This entry is designed to help you to avoid both of the latter when your teenager gets dumped by a significant other.
Tip #1: Limit your first response to listening with empathy. This is the hardest part, listening without trying to make your teen’s pain go away. To be subject to a one-way dumping hurts a lot, especially if it is unexpected, the attachment was a strong one or the relationship was your teen’s first significant romance. As you hear the story you can make empathic comments: “That’s terrible.” “You must feel like your guts are being ripped out.” “I’m so sorry that she is being so unfair.” “It must really hurt that he cheated on you.” Being empathically present as your teen cries and laments, without trying to make the pain go away, is a major gift. It may not feel like it at the time, but it is. (This is often confirmed later by your teen’s expressions of gratitude or by him or her opening up to more to you.)
Tip #2: Try to help your teen get clarity about what he or she wants to do but avoid sounding like your trying to get him or her to do this or that, with one exception. Of course, you will have opinions about best next steps. But, you want your teen to learn to thinks these things through for himself or herself now, when under your care and the stakes are lower (though important), than later, when living on his or her own and the stakes are higher (e.g., should I marry this person?). Maybe the relationship is salvageable, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s best to make a closing statement to the other person, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s best to seek out an explanation from the other person, maybe it isn’t. You can serve as a sounding board, exploring pros and cons of each choice–including pointing out risks and benefits that your teen might be missing–until clarity descends. The only time it’s usually advisable to give firm but kind directives would be in situations when your teen wants to do something that could be dangerous (e.g., going to the other person’s house at 1 AM in the morning), psychologically damaging (e.g., arranging to declare love over the loudspeaker at school) or unduly expensive (e.g., purchasing an expensive piece of jewelry). Otherwise, it’s usually best to encourage your teen to make his or her own call, even when you might wish for a different choice; in the latter scenarios I’d even say something like “Brandon, that probably would not be the way I’d do it in your shoes, but I think it’s more important that you do the thing that you think is best because you’ll be the one experiencing the consequences. Plus, who knows, I’m just an old fart and you could be right.”
Tip #3: Educate, but only once your teen’s thoughts and feelings have been vetted. Let your teen know that it may take a while to get fully over the pain (e.g., going through the holidays and changes in the seasons will bring up painful memories of closeness with the other person) and that this is okay, it is to be expected and it will pass with time. This is a wonderful time to share your stories along these lines. (Crisis = pain + opportunity. The pain you experienced from being dumped can now be an opportunity in your relationship with your teen.)
Tip #4: Help your teen to focus on maintaining good regiments for diet, sleep and physical activity. Getting dumped can cause the behaviors that support these foundations of your teen’s wellness to go into the tank. So, cheerfully supporting each of these can be very helpful. (See other blog entries for tips on maintaining each of these.)
Tip #5: Encourage pleasurable activities. Such a loss is like being in a sea of pain. Experiences of pleasure, even if muted, can be like a raft while on that sea. Try not to show frustration if your teen rejects many of your offerings but keep them coming at a pace that works for your relationship (i.e., not too often, not too infrequently but just right).
Tip #6: Encourage safe social contact. Your teen may feel like he or she is in an abyss. While that sucks it’s a better to be in the abyss with company than alone. But, the company needs to be patient, understanding and disinclined to be scornful of melancholy. Initially this contact may be best accomplished with family and close, mature friends.
Tip #7: Seek our professional help if your teen is experiencing significant impairment accomplishing primary responsibilities (e.g., academic work), is showing a serious symptom (e.g., wishing God would strike her dead), or has mild to moderate symptoms that aren’t getting better after a couple of weeks (e.g., insomnia). If you’re in doubt, go. And, don’t wait for your teen to agree. (I tell parents “it’s your job to get him into my office. It’s my job to deal with him not wanting to be there.”) For a referral, click here.