Help kids with heartbreak before it happens

When I think back to my first heartbreak at age 17, it is not the feeling of getting dumped that stayed with me through the years, but my mum's reaction to the break-up.

It went something along the lines of: "Erinne, he's a jerk. Move on."

At the time, I wasn't sure how to process her reaction. Was she right? Was I overreacting?

The sadness I felt was not validated by someone I trusted, and it made me not want to confide in my mother at all.

As I parent my daughter, who, at nine, 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 will lose her desire to open up to me.

When she does come to me with a problem, I find myself getting lost somewhere between wanting to teach resiliency and also wanting my daughter to feel whatever emotions she is 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 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 teach children to value relationships in general.

At this age, children do not know how to react to rejection, or know how to kindly "reject" others.

It is 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 such as: "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 is time to let go lays a foundation for how to handle relationships in general.

Do not minimise emotions:Observe your child's emotions, name them and praise positive forms of coping, says Ms Loretta Brady, psychotherapist and professor of psychology at St Anselm College.

It is easier to brush aside a child's emotions and instead offer solutions to the problem, but taking the time to listen reminds them that their thoughts are important.

"We need to assure them that what they are feeling is valid and that we understand," Ms Shifrin said.

Make the time: Watching your child feel sadness, anger or confusion is difficult. 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 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, Ms Garner says.

Whether it is a walk, a bike ride or even a video game, that one-on-one or family time allows for comfortable and natural conversations.

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.

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 Ms Shifrin.


•Erinne Magee is a Maine-based writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 25, 2018, with the headline 'Help kids with heartbreak before it happens'. Print Edition | Subscribe