Dealing with dating can be tough. Photo by Matt Nelson on Unsplash
When our teens get into dating it can be pretty scary for us as parents. Suddenly our babies are in the adult world of love! Negotiating all those emotional, physical (Ahh!) and social aspects that come with relationships. But, considering most teenagers don’t end up marrying their first love, what do we do when they, inevitably, break up?
Heart break, Winch says, shares all of the same traits as other types of loss and grief: not being able to sleep, obsessive thoughts that distract you, lowered immunity and even clinical depression. Losing a girlfriend or boyfriend has a huge impact. Your teen might not only lose their relationship but also lose a big part of their social life, friends, activities, and even their identity. Break ups can affect people for months. But as parents, there are things we can do — based on the latest research in this area — to help our teens heal their broken hearts.
8 steps that help fix a broken heart
1) Understand what’s happening in a heartbroken brain.
Brain studies have shown that heartbreak is like withdrawal from drugs. You become obsessed: obsessed with the person you love or obsessed with figuring out what went wrong. When you obsess, play memories of them over and over in your head, look at photos, and try to contact them, you’re getting your ‘fix’. That’s what makes it so difficult to stop doing those things, even when you want to.
Biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher did a study on heartbreak where she looked at people’s brains in a functional MRI (fMRI).
“We put people in the machine, and the results really amazed me,” she says. “We found that when they looked at a picture of the person they love, the hypothalamus was pumping out dopamine”
Down in the base of your brain, the area responsible for your instincts and drives such as hunger, thirst, and lust is the hypothalamus — and it’s this dopamine that makes us feel all gooey when we fall in love. It gives us feelings of elation, mood swings, cravings, and obsessive thinking. Everything feels amazing and special! But when we break up… we fall into dopamine withdrawal.
Helping your teen understand this is a good place to start.
Don’t downplay their feelings. Just because they are young or may not understand love like we do doesn’t mean they weren’t in love. Heartbreak has the same reaction in their brains as in ours and it hurts just as badly, so whether they were really “in love” or not is irrelevant. Encourage them to watch Winch’s Ted talk and chat with them about it.
2) Cut off social media Cold Turkey (even if just for 2 months). Now this is a hard one especially for teenagers, but encourage them to block their ex on Snapchat and unfriend them on Facebook, even if it’s just for a short time. Call it a “No-Contact” month. Don’t push it. It’s not an easy thing to do. But you can suggest it and tell them it’s a really powerful way to get over someone faster. They can even let their ex know that they are going to try a no-contact-month if that helps.
3) Get rid of the reminders. As much as possible encourage your teen to remove or hide all the reminders of their ex. They can make a box or file if they want to with photos etc., but getting them away and out of sight will make recovery much easier. Of course if they are at school with their ex then there will be reminders that they can’t get rid of, but they can be limited.
“When you start to fall for someone, everything about them is special,” says Fisher. “The house they live in, the street they live on, it’s all special to you. They’re dopamine triggers.” Reminders after the break up trigger the same dopamine reaction, and that just makes it that much harder to move on.
4) Make a list of why they weren’t perfect. Idealising your ex and how amazing they were is a really common reaction to heartbreak. Everything about them becomes SO perfect: their smile, the way they talked, that birthday when they were so thoughtful…
Winch suggests making a list — writing down all of the ways that the ex was the wrong one for you. Encourage your teen to think of all the things that they didn’t like about their ex. Did they do anything that was rude or hurtful. Did they have personality traits or habits that weren’t great.
It’s not about being mean and hateful to the other person, but its acknowledging that no one is perfect and giving a bit of balance. Winch recommends keeping the list on their phone so they can read it whenever they find themselves remembering the “perfect” things.
5) Get a sense of closure We can waste a lot of energy going over and over the question “what went wrong?” but it just holds us in our heartbreak. Winch says we either need to accept the reason the ex gave or make one up to get closure.
It ended because she wasn’t emotionally available (Not because your teen wasn’t good enough.) It ended because he wasn’t mature enough for a long term relationship (Not because they’re not pretty enough.)
6) Fill in the voids. All of them. Moving on involves finding ways to replace the gaps that the ex left. Going out with friends, or meeting new people, starting a new hobby, exercising, having fun. Support your teen in getting outside and getting active with friends. (Try really hard to drag them away from technology. They need real connections in the real world right now.)
7) Don’t try to be friends. It’s not easy to get over an ex if you are still trying to be friends. Teens usually say they want to stay friends, and they might have to if they are in the same social circles or same classes at school, but it does drag the heartbreak out longer in general. So if it’s possible, encourage that “no-contact” month.
8) Distract your brain. Because your teen now understands what’s happening in their lovesick brain, they can control it a bit. When they feel themselves obsessing, or going over old memories of their ex, encourage them instead to redirect their focus. Even if it’s just doing math equations in their head, like working out the 11 times tables into the hundreds. Or they could play a challenging puzzle or word game on their phone. They could memorise something.
When her research subjects redirected their focus “the hypothalamus calmed down and stopped pumping out the dopamine that was making them feel lovestruck,” says Fisher.
Heartbreak is not an easy thing for adults to deal with let alone teenagers. We might be secretly glad they are single again (there’s always that scary — what if someone gets pregnant scenario!) but they need our support, compassion and patience — it might take longer for them to get over it than we think it should, and that’s okay.
It may seem bad right now, but, with your support, it can be a positive life lesson. They can learn some new skills, be resilient, and discover that they are capable of handling difficult emotions.
“Through putting people who’ve been rejected or dumped into the fMRI, we’ve discovered something promising,” Fisher says, “which is that the attachment eventually reduces. Time does heal the brain.”
Until next time,
If you found this helpful feel free to share it and remember to grab a copy of my research-based resource Managing conflict with Teens below!