How to Help Your Teen Through a Breakup
Powerful emotions plus social media make teen breakups messier than ever.
Clinical Expert: Dave Anderson, PhD
What You'll Learn
- How can caregivers support teens going through a breakup?
- How does social media complicate teen breakups?
- What does support look like in different phases of a breakup?
Going through a breakup is tough, especially for teenagers in today’s digital age.
Teen couples are often in constant contact through texts and video calls. When a relationship ends, there’s not just the loss of the person but also a gap in their daily routine. And social media makes it public. Breakup news can spread quickly online. When friends start texting after seeing breakup posts, it leaves little time for teens to process. Teens also tend to experience emotions more intensely than adults — both highs and lows — adding an extra challenge.
In the first few days after a breakup, parents and caregivers should offer their teen support without pressing them for details. Let them know you’re there to talk or to simply be with them. And encourage them to spend time with friends.
Take care to keep any opinions about your teen’s ex to yourself, but also gently discourage them from trying to be friends with their ex right away. And if your teen seeing a therapist, let them know about the breakup so your teen has another trusted adult to turn to.
After the first few days, you might encourage them to reflect. Discuss what’s helped and what hasn’t in coping with the breakup. Keep them busy with activities and watch out for signs of overanalyzing. If they’re constantly discussing the breakup with friends, offer distractions and enforce screen-time limits. If your teen’s distress continues for more than two weeks or their behavior starts to concern you, consider consulting a mental health professional.
Embrace the silver lining. Remind them that managing emotional distress is a valuable life skill that will help them empathize with and support friends going through breakups in the future.
You probably remember all too well the heartache of a teen breakup — especially a person you dated for a while and maybe even thought was going to be “the one.” But when your own teen is going through a similar experience, it doesn’t mean words of wisdom automatically come to you. “It was rough for a couple of weeks,” one friend, whose daughter ‘s boyfriend broke up with her by text, told me. “While I could relate to how she felt losing someone who was important to her, I never had to do it under social media scrutiny.”
For sure, the digital age makes teen breakups more traumatic and dramatic. “Teen couples are often in touch with one another all day through text and Facetime,” says Lisa Damour, PhD, author of The Emotional Lives of Teenagers. “Some even do homework with Facetime open. The teens in my care who have romantic relationships are much more in contact with their partners than I am with my spouse. So, when those relationships go away, there’s the pain of the loss and there’s also an enormous hole left in that young person’s day.”
With social media, news of the breakup also travels fast in friend circles. “My son’s friends were texting him less than an hour after his girlfriend broke up with him because she posted about it on Snapchat!” said another mom friend. “He didn’t even have time to process it before his texts started blowing up.”
Social media pressure, more free time, and the fact that teens feel everything more deeply — highs and lows — conspire to make a breakup the not-so-perfect storm. “The emotional intensity during adolescence is higher than other stages of life,” notes Dave Anderson, PhD, senior clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.
“We can’t prevent emotional distress in our kids, nor can we make it go away as quickly as we want to, but there are some things we can absolutely do and say to help,” says Dr. Damour.
How to handle the first few days
Shock, sadness, anger — your teen is feeling all kinds of intense emotions in the early days of a breakup. Even if they initiated the split or it was a mutual decision, they may still be having a tough time. “As parents we can fall into the trap of trying to help put it in perspective and rush in with stories about our own breakups,” says Dr. Anderson. “But that’s an instinct that we should try to quiet at least for a little while.”
Lead with empathy. Try to resist asking your teen for more details than they want to share, says Dr. Anderson. Instead, give them options, saying something like, “I know this must be incredibly hard for you. If you want to talk about it, great. If you just want someone to be around you when you’re doing your homework or watching TV, I’m also here.” If your teen responds that “I’m fine” but you can clearly see that they’re not, give it a day and follow up with, “Honey, I want you to know, I’m worried about you, and I want you to know that I’m here for support.”
Welcome their friends. Encourage your teen to invite a couple of pals over for a movie night and supply the ice cream. In fact, their friends might have already suggested it. “I’m moved by how naturally and creatively friends help one another,” says Dr. Damour. “The support of friends (and the comfort of ice cream) is more than just a happy distraction. It helps your teen realize that people still want to hang out with them.”
Keep your opinion about the ex to yourself. Perhaps you never thought they were right for each other and are happy that the relationship ended. Or you may have considered the ex a “bonus kid” and will miss having them around. Either way, this isn’t the time to share your feelings with your teen. You can vent to a partner, friend, or therapist.
But speak up about the friend zone. If your teen tells you that they’re going to try to be friends with their ex, gently discourage it at least in the short term. “It’s very hard to go straight from romance to friendship,” says Dr. Damour. “There are still a lot of tender feelings and it’s easy to get hurt.” Instead, she suggests saying something like, “You may be friends down the line, but it’s hard to move such intense feelings right into the friendship.”
Alert their therapist. If your teen is already being treated for depression, anxiety, or another mental health challenge, fill in their therapist so they have another trusted adult to talk to about what happened and help them get over the hump.
How to Handle the Next Phase
After a few days in a funk, it’s time to ease back into routines. Here’s how to help your teen get in the swing of things again:
Tell them they’re not alone. Teen still hunkered down in their room with the door closed? Empathize with what they’ve been through — but also help them look to the future. Dr. Anderson suggests starting out with, “I’m really sorry to watch what you’re going through. I’ve been through it, everybody I know has been through it, and you’re not alone in this.” At this point, you might want to share a breakup story from when you were their age. Then work how to move forward into the conversation. You might say, “I’m not asking for you to be better or recovered or over this person. But there’s a balance between feeling your feelings and getting back to your routines, which will help you feel better.”
Help them reflect. Chances are, some things have made your teen feel better over the last few days and some have made them feel worse, says Dr. Damour. Guide your teen to tease out what’s helped and what hasn’t — and to be totally honest with themselves. “Lots of teens will say, ‘It’s good for me to still be following my ex on social media because it helps me feel still connected,’” says Dr. Anderson. Ask your teen “How does it help?” if they see their ex out having fun with friends. If they’re not willing to sever social media ties entirely, suggest that they temporarily mute them, so their ex’s posts don’t pop up in their feed. On the flip side, urge them to lean more into strategies that have been helpful, whether it’s cuddling with the dog, baking, watching beloved reruns, or going for a run.
Keep them busy. While routines are important, distractions are valuable too. Offer to take them somewhere fun. Opt for hands-on places (like an escape room, bowling, or pottery class) rather than passive options where it’s easy to zone out. Of course, avoid places that may remind your teen of their ex.
Watch for overanalyzing. Sure, it’s a good sign overall if your teen talks about the breakup with their besties. But hashing it out with various friend groups over and over again for days may make things worse. If you notice that happening, it’s even more important to provide one of the distractions above. You can also enforce your regular screen-time rules.
Seek professional support. It’s normal and even healthy to be upset by a breakup. But there are a few red flags that parents should keep in mind. “If your teen is being terrible to themselves and others after a few days, they may need professional support to develop coping mechanisms,” says Dr. Damour. Dr. Anderson adds that it takes most teens about two weeks to start feeling the breakup less acutely and be on their way to returning to normal. If you don’t see signs of that, set up an appointment with a mental health professional. Breakups can be a trigger for a teen’s depressive episode.
Embrace the silver lining. Although it’s difficult to watch your teen be so upset and not be able to “fix” it, “keep in mind that for teens, there’s tremendous value in well-handled psychological distress,” says Dr. Damour. “It shows them that they have the ability to handle painful emotions and find a way through.” She adds that the experience will also foster empathy: “When one of their dear friends gets their heart broken, someone who has been there will be able to offer far better support than a teen who hasn’t walked in those shoes.”