'Don't trash the ex': 7 rules for supporting teens through heartbreak

I had my first romantic heartbreak during my junior year in college. I was hundreds of miles away from home and overwhelmed by the big feelings, and I didn't know what to do. My survival reflexes kicked in: I called my mom.

It was 1 a.m. in the middle of a workweek, and I woke my parents up from a deep sleep. But I have never forgotten that in my moment of 20-year-old heartbreak crisis, my mom let me cry to her on the phone. She didn't take away the pain, and she didn't solve my problems, but she did what I needed her to do by just being on the other end of the line for me so I didn't feel completely alone at that moment.

My mom did exactly what parents need to do for their brokenhearted teenagers and young adults, said Lisa Heffernan, co-founder of the website and Facebook group Grown & Flown. Heffernan and her partner, Mary Dell Harrington, just published their first book about parenting teenagers and college students, Grown & Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults, and they cover this topic in the book and on their website.

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"We can help our teenagers most by acknowledging just how excruciatingly painful this is, by telling them that we know, because we've had it happen to us — and most of us have had our hearts broken by the time we have teenagers ourselves," said Heffernan, who has three grown sons of her own.

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Sometimes, Heffernan said, that "offering of understanding" is all a teenager needs when their romantic relationship has ended. But if you have a teen or young adult of your own who just checked into the Heartbreak Hotel and your own heart is breaking watching them go through the pain, here are some basic guidelines for how to support them best.

Don't: Trash the ex

This is the No. 1 rule of parenting after heartbreak, said Heffernan. "You will have to eat those words, and it will not be good," she warned. Keep in mind that besides the sting of rejection, one of the reasons your teen feels hurt is the affection they still have for their ex, so be careful about saying anything that might come back to haunt you if/when they get back together.

Do: Be quiet but close

"It's really hard to say the right thing at these moments, so it's often better to support through your hug, your listening or just your presence nearby," parenting and child development expert Dr. Debroah Gilboa told TODAY Parents.

Don't: Point out how they are better off — even if it is true

If that was the feeling that was biggest for your teen, they wouldn't be hurting, said Gilboa. "They may come to that conclusion themselves, but if you say it first, they may fight against the truth of it," she said.

Do: Remind them they will not always feel like this

Teens live very much in the moment, while their parents tend to project to the future, said Heffernan. "Remind them that this pain will subside," she said, without dismissing how much it hurts now. They will survive it and they will, eventually, feel better.

Encourage daddy time. The greatest untapped resource available for improving the lives of our children is time with Dad - early and often. Kids with engaged fathers do better in school, problem-solve more successfully, and generally cope better with whatever life throws at them.

Don't: "At least" them

Gilboa warns against diminishing your support by saying things like, "At least she didn't do this right before prom," or, "At least you're not married." "'At least...' anything may turn you into part of the problem in your teenager's mind," she said.

Do: Accept that you can't fix this for them, and they don't expect you to

Heartbreak is a learning experience for your teen, for better and worse, said Gilboa. "You can't change that, and they don't think that you can. Trying will only limit the power of this experience for your teen."
Here's the bad news, confirmed by Heffernan: Watching your own child go through heartbreak is, though you would have never believed it, more painful than going through it yourself. So here's a bonus piece of advice: Don't be afraid to buy two pints of Ben & Jerry's ice cream and give one to your teenager and claim one for yourself.

Study reveals how much heartbreak we experience