Q: My 17-year-old daughter is experiencing her first big breakup from a romantic relationship. She has dated casually before this, but this relationship was definitely a level deeper than previous ones. She is extremely upset by the breakup, and even though it was a result of a conversation she initiated, it was not the outcome she wanted. How do I support her through this? How do I know when the grief is normal and when it isn’t? She is completely derailed by this and can’t focus on school or anything else, but it just happened a couple of days ago.
A: William Shakespeare writes in “Macbeth”: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”
Is there anything worse than watching your children experience their first heartbreak? By the time they are 17, we parents know there is nothing we can do about the first big breakup and the ensuing feelings, but it sure doesn’t make it any easier. As much as we know that heartbreak finds us all, we seem to have some kind of parental instinct (fear?) that makes it all the harder to see our children suffer.
You’ve asked some great questions: “How do I support her through this?” and “How do I know when the grief is normal and when it isn’t?” I’m going to begin with the one about the “normalcy” of grief and the timing. Despite the fact that the DSM-5 now includes prolonged grief disorder, your daughter doesn’t yet qualify, given the timing of the breakup. Having trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, weeping, having trouble eating or eating too much, and having trouble focusing: All of these are symptoms of the shock of the outcome of the talk, as well as the heartbreak of the breakup. It is hard to watch, but it is normal.
How do you support her through this? I looked to the master of grief, Shakespeare, for his wisdom and, of course, he delivered. The quote above is spot on. (Thanks, Bard.) As tiresome or upsetting as it may be, simply listening to your daughter — and witnessing her sadness — is mostly all that is needed. Hugs, tea, treats, movies: It all adds up to soothing your daughter and helping to “give sorrow words.” The more she lets out the pain, the less room it will take up. All that painful emoting is how people become resilient through suffering; if she bottles it up, she doesn’t learn that she can live through her pain. And although it is important to listen to her, you also don’t have to make the sadness precious. Your life must go on, and by living normally, you are modeling strong leadership.
Although listening and having cups of tea are needed and good, you can also help your daughter place her grief into some containers, so everyday life can continue. For instance, say: “Let’s watch ‘Notting Hill’ with some popcorn, then you’re going to shower and crack open a bit of homework.” Or vice versa. She may not want to, or she may complain, but do your best to help her understand that humans are capable of living with sadness, even great sadness. And that showering, eating a good meal and accomplishing even one small task are good for the spirit.
I would also recommend promoting ridiculous laughter; watch “Saturday Night Live” clips, silly animal videos or whatever makes her giggle. Laughter is meant to break tension and snap ourselves out of our one-track thinking, so try doing this whenever possible.
Finally, encourage her to go on outings with friends, be with animals or little kids, and move in nature. Complaining to peers is an age-old tactic, and it can feel really good for most teens. (Unless her friends are more “frenemies,” in which case it’s best she’s not with them.) Walking and cuddling animals can increase oxytocin (the love hormone), so find neighbors’ pets, pet adoption centers, farms, stables, etc., and enjoy the animals.
Moving in nature is also important when it comes to grief, because moving your body can help emotions move, vitamin D from the sun is an emotion booster, and seeing beautiful sights can help people focus on the bigger picture. Yes, heartbreak is real and awful, but life and nature keep going.
Keep listening, keep her moving and assure her that her feelings are real and that she will love again. Good luck.
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