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May 8, 2000 e-mail e-mail to a friend in need

Parent Company:
How Can I Help My Kid Through a Breakup?

Breakup Girl is always here to help you help your mom through a breakup. But lately — Mother's Day performance anxiety? (Happy happy!) – I've been hearing a lot from moms wondering how to help their kids through breakups.

And guess what: while your kid may already have spent so much time on the phone with friends that you need an oven mitt to hold it, s/he also wants to talk to you. A recent survey commissioned by the YMCA found that: "'Not having enough time together' with their parents is the top concern among teenagers today. Teens are three times more likely than their parents to say that 'not having enough time together' is their biggest issue of concern. Family time is tied with education for first place on the teens' list of concerns." Maybe some of their parents made them say that, but still.

Same, in many cases, goes for grown kids, who may just have gotten more proficient at pretending not to listen.

So here's the question from this week's Mother of all Moms:

Dear Breakup Girl,

My daughter is 18 and has been in a bad relationship for three and a half years. Of course, she thinks that the reason the relationship is bad is all her fault. Now the young man (and I say that with tongue in cheek) has decided that he wants nothing more to do with her. Her heart is broken; she says she has no one without him (which is true, because she has isolated herself for all this time because of him). How do I support her in this trying time? What do I say to let her know that life will go on? I am at a loss; I wish there were a Band-Aid or magic potion that I could use to make all the hurt go away. She is pitiful, and I am hurting for her. I want her to know that she is precious, that there is someone out there waiting for her, and that she will find friends, but I don't want to come across preachy. I have been through breakups before, but I don't know how my mother dealt with it, mainly because I was away at college when all this was going on. Please help me help her get through this horrid time in her life.


Hey, Ricki. As you say, not even mommies have magic Band-Aids. But this superhero can, at least, offer a collective/universal response from our pro wisewoman Belleruth and from equally wise civilians who were kind enough to Do Tell about their experiences:

Belleruth says: Be sympathetic, but don't hover or treat your child like an invalid. Listen and try not to talk too much — just listening well is a killer gift to give your kid. It usually doesn't help to say what an jerk you knew the person was anyway, etc. etc. Or to do the cheerleading or the "it's all for the best" thing when they're in the muck. It's just … annoying. Maddening / heartbreaking as this is, you can't fix it, so don't try. Instead, tolerate your kid's misery as best you can without making it yours — and thus adding to his/hers. Temporary wallowing is fine, not to mention necessary. But if it's getting so they're really sinking in the mire of self-pity or inactivity, that calls for a little more "Because I said so" time-to-get-your-act-together ass-kicking. Loss is, after all, part of life — as is getting past it. With your support, your kid will have to figure out how to do it.

AWM writes: Parents can help their children through a breakup by being supportive without taking sides. That way, if the child changes his/her mind about the way she feels, the parents' past comments wont come back to haunt the child. For example, day one: I hate Joe. Day two: I love Joe. If the parent makes a negative comment about Joe on day one, then that parent won't be convincingly supportive on day two when the child's feelings change. Also, hot chocolate with whipped cream helps, and you don't have to say a thing.

Angel writes: When my boyfriend dumped me, my mom tried to reassure me by saying, "You were too good for him — he didn't deserve you," and other little supposedly uplifting comments like that. If anything, that just made me feel worse because I still liked him, didn't believe a word she was saying, and hadn't gotten over the thought of losing him. This is the worst thing a parent, or even a friend for that matter, can say to someone who has just been dumped.

Taryn writes: I was petrified to tell my mom that my then-husband had left because I was afraid she would do the ol' "I Told You So" bit (she was not fond of him...). But all she really said was, "What do you need me to do for you?" I went home for Christmas a week later, and she was great. She gave me her room as my own personal cave that I could escape to whenever I felt the need to be alone, and she didn't ask questions. She hugged me a lot. So the best thing parents can do for their kids after a breakup is to just be available and to not condemn actions. When you are hurting, the last thing you need is someone telling you what a jerk the other person was because that points out that you made a bad decision. My mom was then, and continues to be, my greatest source of support.

Jenn writes: When I was in high school, I was thrilled to get my first boyfriend/love as a junior. We only dated for three months, but it was monumental to me. When he broke up with me, I was devastated and clinically depressed for about a year afterwards. I made a mistake in telling my parents that I broke up with him. I totally faked that everything was fine when inside I was flipping out. The point of this story is that parents need to really pay attention to the clues their children give when they break up. It doesn't matter what your child actually says about the breakup and how they feel about it, look closer for signs of depression. Perhaps if my parents had noticed, I would have gotten help sooner.

Vicki writes: The absolute worst thing that a parent can say to you when you break up with your one true love is, "I never liked him anyway." Because your response (at least in your head) is, "Why didn't you say that BEFORE?!?!"

Erin writes: My Mom and Dad probably could have used a bit of your sage advice when my boyfriend of four years broke up with me (after I had moved halfway across the US to be with him and he and I had lived together for a year). Nevertheless they did surprisingly well on their own, proving to be superheros in their own right. Coping with a daughter in Chicago, when you are a parent in NY, is hard enough, but coping with a dumped daughter from that distance takes the patience of Job (especially when I am that daughter). If I were to credit anyone, besides myself, with getting me through that rough time it would be my mom.

1. She never said "I told you so." Even though my mom didn't feel this boy was "the one" she allowed me to make my own decisions. After all, I was 22 with a career and a life of my own. Even though she did not wholeheartedly support our living together before marriage, she never loved me less for doing so. She never joined in the familial chorus of "He's such a jerk!" and "What an @$> %!" though it was tempting because he broke her daughter's heart. She said "I know you are sad," not "I knew this would never work out!" By believing that I could make positive decisions, my mom proved that she believed I am strong enough to pick up and move on when those personal decisions wind up with the occasional unhappy ending.

2. She believed in me even when I didn't. My breakup became an apartment-search, a job-hunt, depression, a "Who am I?" quest, etc. etc. When that got me down and I said negative things about myself, my mom came back with an endless stream of positive rebuttals. When her well was going dry, she just listened. And as you know so well, Breakup Girl, sometimes that's all you need.

3. She never let me forget that "single" does not equal "orphan." At 26, I have an obscene number of friends who are married with growing families; at times I feel like an outcast ("the single one"). But mom reminds me that I have a loving family of parents and siblings who are constant sources of love and warmth in my life. I also know she did not appreciate hearing my grandfather ask me when I was going to get a move on and get him some grandkids. She takes pride in having a daughter with a fabulous career, hobbies and busy social life.

As for dad, when I got home in tears, he simply asked me if he could make me a sandwich. We just sat there and had lunch. I don't remember what we talked about or if we said anything at all...but it remains with me as one of the simplest acts of kindness ever. Neither of my parents tried to "fix" my breakup or me. They knew that my spirit wasn't truly broken, even before I did.

When I saw your request for how parents can help their kids through breakups, I felt the need to gush. Hope the above will make for some mushy Mother's and Father's day cards.

More stuff:

  • By the way — IMPORTANT BREAKUP GIRL SIDEBAR — it's not all just woo-pitching and curfew-bitching. Sometimes your kid is actually wrapped up in something dangerous.

    How can you tell? Warning signs include (briefly and, for simplicity's sake, limited to daughters in straight relationships): injuries she can't explain, signs that she is afraid of her boyfriend (e.g. she stresses out about returning his calls promptly), evidence that he lashes out at her (or at other people/things), changes in her appearance or commitment to friends and activities.

    What can you do? Angry or worried though you may be, trying to restrict or control her will likely backfire; someone is already doing that. Instead, ask questions and express concern based on your own observations – Empathy City. As Barrie Levy, M.S.W. writes: "Quiet, positive actions, far from 'doing nothing,' can have a positive impact."

    Levy, in fact, wrote the book on this stuff:  What Parents Need to Know About Dating Violence (which also covers parents of abusers and of kids in gay relationships). If you think you need this info, run, don't walk — you can help your child take steps toward safety.



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