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How to talk to your kids about their first heartbreak

Mom consoles daughter as she has her hands to her mouth looking distraught.

Our first love can be a highly emotional experience and the same goes for first heartbreak. It’s never easy to see your child hurting, but you can ease their struggle by remaining open and available to listen.

Keep reading to learn how you can support your child, or listen to our podcast on this topic here, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Why first heartbreak is overwhelming for kids

The first time humans experience anything, emotions and memories associated with that event are more significant than emotions and memories of experiences that follow. The first time your child rides a bike, visits a new place, or goes through a breakup, those memories take on a heightened status. The nature of first heartbreak means your child hasn’t ever gone through this – they haven’t experienced feeling better with time and caring about someone new, so it can be hard for them to imagine things getting better. Also, kids compare themselves to others and care a lot about what others think, so rejection can feel magnified by knowing that their heartbreak is “public knowledge.”

Why first heartbreak is so overwhelming for parents

It’s always hard to see your child in pain, and it is especially tough when you watch them go through new kinds of hurt, like their first heartbreak. Remember, this is a new experience for them and for you. Your child’s heartbreak might bring up unpleasant or painful memories from your past. If that happens, acknowledge it, and process your feelings with a trusted friend, not with your child. Another reason why a child’s first heartbreak may be difficult for parents is today’s kids may be starting relationships at younger ages than you did, so you may not feel prepared to have these conversations when you need to have them. The good news is you can still be supportive even if you feel caught off guard.

How parents can support kids through first heartbreak

  • Listen, listen, listen. Let them talk as much as they want. Don’t feel like you need to respond or offer advice.
  • Validate their emotions. Let them know you hear how they are feeling and how difficult it is, and that what they are feeling is normal.
  • Help them stay connected. Make sure they stay in touch with other caring people in their lives: friends, teammates and family members who can give them support.
  • Encourage healthy social media habits. Talk about the benefits of avoiding or limiting social media for a while after the breakup or at least limiting interactions with the former significant other. Remind them about the drawbacks of posting in highly emotional times.
  • Help them maintain a routine. Support their mental health by keeping regular sleep and activity schedules, eating regularly and staying involved.
  • Help them get their emotions out of their bodies. Encourage journaling, talking, dancing, singing, physical movement or even writing a letter they don’t send.
  • After they’re feeling a little better, offer fun activities. Experiences that remind them who they are and what they enjoy can build self-esteem.
  • Rely on your own support system. They will help you work through emotions that come up rather than process your emotions with your child.
  • Later on, talk about what they learned from the relationship. What were some good things and some not-so-good things about the relationship? Ask open-ended questions that invite them to share as much as they want to share.
  • Model healthy relationships. Let your child observe you maintaining healthy boundaries, expressing your needs and showing mutual respect, whether it be in romantic relationships, friendships or family relationships.
  • Remember, you don’t know exactly how they feel. Everyone is unique and your child is the expert on their experience, so try not to assume.
  • Avoid relating. It may be tempting to share your own stories of heartbreak, but it’s rarely helpful.
  • Offer advice only if they ask for it.
  • Try to not minimize their feelings. What they feel is real and dismissing their feelings won’t make them go away.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If you think there’s any chance you could get upset about something they tell you, avoiding promising you won’t get upset.

How parents can tell if first heartbreak is negatively affecting kids’ mental health

  • If their extreme sadness lasts more than two weeks, they might be experiencing something more than heartbreak. Talk with a professional about your child’s emotional wellbeing.
  • If they feel hopeless about themselves or about life in general, it is probably time to seek professional help. A mental health professional (counselor, psychologist) can help.
  • If they have a previous history of depression, anxiety or self-harm, you’ll want to keep a close eye on their moods, behaviors, etc. These may put them at higher risk of difficulty coping with heartbreak or other difficult events.
  • If other parts of their life are being negatively affected, it might be time to talk to a professional. If they are avoiding time with friends, missing school or not enjoying activities they usually enjoy, that could be a sign they need more support.

Find more information about addressing suicide risk as a parent here.

Benefits of talking about first heartbreak with kids

  • Any time you can open the door of communication with your child, they will be more likely to come to you when they’re struggling.
  • Even if they don’t take you up on the offer right away, they’ll know they can come to you in the future.
  • Listening and validating your child’s experience will teach them that they can trust you in tough times.

It may not feel like it, but heartbreak can be a good thing. It means your child is learning things about themselves and what they want in a future partner. When in doubt, just being there to listen to them and remind them they are loved is one of the best ways you can show your child love.

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Child Psychology

Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine