When I think back to my first heartbreak of world-ending proportions at age 17, it’s not the feeling of getting dumped that stayed with me through the years, but my mom’s reaction to the breakup.
It went something along the lines of: "Erinne, you're 17. You'll never remember this. He's a jerk. Move on."
At the time, I wasn’t sure how to process her reaction. Was she right? Was I overreacting as I hyperventilated to love songs on the radio? The sadness I felt was not validated by someone I had always trusted, and it made me not want to confide in my mother at all.
As I parent my daughter, who at 9 is hopefully nowhere near dating age, I know I have to get realistic about how to handle such conversations when the time does come.
One of my greatest fears is she’ll lose her desire to open up to me; in fact, I already feel a shift. She’s inherited my independent spirit, which, coupled with the hormones and keen awareness of being a fourth-grader, means Mom doesn’t get the marathon explanations of her day or the goings-on with friends.
When she does come to me with a problem, I find myself getting lost somewhere between wanting to teach resiliency but also wanting my daughter to feel whatever emotions she’s going through.
So how will I talk her through her first heartbreak? I sought the advice of a few experts.
Start with friendships: “Once kids get into their elementary and tween years, their most important relationships transition from parent-child to peer-to-peer,” says clinical psychologist Maria Shifrin, who notes that friendships are an opportunity for parents to plant the seed of how children should value relationships in general.
At this age, children still don’t know how to react to rejection or letdown, nor do they know how to kindly “reject” others. It’s just as important to show them how to cope with loss as it is to offer conversation tactics that can be useful when they need to be the one to let someone down. Children will find themselves on both sides of this scenario, so use their disappointment in this moment to say something like, “How could Sally have nicely told you she didn’t want to play today?”
Having an open discussion about what good friendships look like and when it’s time to let go lays a foundation for how to handle relationships in general.
Don’t minimize emotions: Take the opportunity to observe your child’s emotions, name them and praise positive forms of coping, says Loretta Brady, psychotherapist and professor of psychology at St. Anselm College.
It’s easier to brush aside a child’s emotions and instead jump in and offer solutions to the problem, but taking the time to listen reminds them that their thoughts are just as important as yours. It can also be helpful to offer a creative outlet like drawing, coloring or music so the child can see there are positive ways to cope.
“We need to assure them that what they are feeling is valid and real and that we understand,” Shifrin said. “If we are quick to minimize their pain, they will be much less likely to come to us later.”
Make the time: Watching anyone, especially your own child, feel sadness, anger or confusion is difficult. Looking back on my childhood and also observing other parents today, including myself, there are times when we want to fast-forward through the emotion because it makes us uncomfortable.
But if we are constantly zipping through uncomfortable conversations, we are teaching our kids to do the same. “These moments are teaching moments,” says marriage and family therapist Christi Garner. “A parent who blows off this vulnerable conversation is giving their children the message that their feelings aren’t important.”
Parents and children who spend time together outside their daily routines are more likely to have important conversations because there is another focus aside from the challenging topic, Garner says. Whether it’s a walk, bike ride or even a video game, that one-on-one or family time allows for comfortable and natural conversations, away from the daily rush.
Talk about your own struggles: “Hearing about how parents themselves overcame early heartbreak can help kids know that there is hope after these disappointments,” says Brian Cassmassi, a psychiatrist in Los Angeles.
I remember when I first mustered up the courage to tell my daughter more about my divorce from her father. It was something I dreaded but knew I had to do because the questions were present in her mind. I put off this conversation because I thought I was protecting her, just like my mom probably thought she was doing for me when she resorted to tough love over my breakup. But what I was really doing was allowing my daughter to internalize these questions, filling in the blanks as her young mind saw fit. When I finally told her, she seemed grateful, almost proud, that I would confide in her. She showed no signs of being uncomfortable or confused.
Cassmassi said that parents can also use characters from books and television to open the dialogue with their children. Ultimately, you want to let them know that no topic is off-limits.
“We don’t have all the answers, but we can help kids navigate the world themselves with unconditional support,” said Shifrin. “With open eyes and open ears.”