After two and a half years of dating, naivete told me I had dealt with all the situations: meeting each other’s families, summers apart, uncertainty, fights, temptations. Just a few weeks earlier we had talked about plans for after college and when we might get married. As I stood by the side of a campus path at the start of senior year, and heard my boyfriend tell me angrily that he was done, I felt my life flip upside down.
The first thing I did? Call my parents. As I battled my way through nearly two weeks of not eating, and months of emotional turmoil, they were a source of comfort for me that even my best friends at college couldn’t match.
It can’t be easy watching your son or daughter suffer through a breakup, no matter what the circumstances. Emotions are strained to breaking point, and a few words from a parent can seriously influence a young adult’s frame of mind for better or worse. I am so grateful that my relationship with my parents was strengthened as a result of my breakup. They were able to offer me precisely what I needed: affirmation, understanding, counsel, and prayer. Let's start with the first two.
Since I was facing what looked like a void of emotional devastation, I was in desperate need of someone who I could rely on to love me. Underneath all the complicated circumstances, muddled emotions, and social drama in any breakup are deep feelings of guilt and unworthiness. “Why wasn’t I good enough?” is the recurring plea.
When they heard me crying on the phone, my parents took the time to listen to me, to sympathize, counsel, and generally show me that I mattered and I was worthwhile. Over the weeks that followed, they constantly offered me words of comfort. Words are important to me, so I still keep a text from my mom in my phone: “Pray, hope, and don’t worry. It will take time to heal. You are learning a valuable lesson in conquering self. Turn to the Sorrowful Heart of Mary.” And from my dad, encouraging me to keep a path of charity towards the people involved: “Have confidence in what you are doing. You know it is the right thing.”
Ultimately, the first, most important, and sometimes only step parents need to take to help their child is affirmation: making it very clear to the son or daughter that they are loved and valued, unconditionally and forever. Knowing your child’s love language helps a lot here, so that you can really communicate your love and support without accidentally seeming intrusive. Words may not be the best thing, but a care package, a special meal, a girls’/guys’ night out, or a surprise gift might be just what your son or daughter needs to remind them that no matter what just happened, they are loved.
My own situation was a thoroughly complicated one, involving a semester apart while I was overseas, another girl, and a whole lot of immaturity. There were many tangled threads, most of which I didn’t thoroughly unravel for weeks or months, after piecing together clues my boyfriend never directly shared.
My parents worked hard to understand what had happened, used their experience of my boyfriend and of how people work, then helped me reach the truth about my boyfriend’s decision. They talked me through my feelings of rejection, pointed out his flawed choices, and helped me untangle the complicated social situation I laid out for them. With their help, I managed to figure out that it truly wasn't my fault; amid the myriad clues was the underlying fact of my boyfriend’s immaturity, brought to a head by circumstances out of my control.
If your son or daughter lets you, understanding is one way in which parents can deeply impact the way your child recovers. Be careful—it’s easy to make a snap judgment about an emotional situation like a breakup, usually in the form of a well-meaning “He/she was never worth your time.” The better way is to let the child talk it all out, while listening carefully, asking clarifying, non-accusatory questions, and recognizing the good points of both sides. Reach deep into your memory for memories of your own teenage drama, and share those—it helps to know that parents were also vulnerable, once upon a time.
Stay tuned for more. In the meantime, what challenges have you mothers and fathers faced in helping your own children through a difficult breakup? I've seen it from the other side both in my case and with my friends, but please share your perspective in the comments below.
Copyright 2016 Rebecca Willen
About the Author
Rebecca's love of the written word led to her current roles as associate editor of trade books at Our Sunday Visitor, and Daily Gospel Reflections editor at CatholicMom.com. She is a nerdy Catholic, book addict, Shakespeare fangirl, amateur baker, and musician. Follow @NerdCornerBooks on Instagram for book recommendations.