She is only nine years old! You are baffled but it is true, love can enter (and exit!) your son or your daughter’s life as early as that. Usually, a first love happens around the age of twelve, but it's impossible to measure feelings and emotions on a scale— every child is different.
The first heartbreak can leave deeper scars than the next ones, says Chantal Belhumeur, psychologist. “I see adults in their thirties, even in their forties, who come in for a consultation and who still remember their first broken heart!” she says.
Your child or pre-teen's first heart break will not necessarily leave such a mark but some children are more vulnerable than others when it comes to the pains of love.
Intense pain: internal risk factors
Boys and girls are probably affected at different levels by the poisonous arrows of love but since there are very few studies on the subject, it is hard to name those differences.
There are, however, some individual characteristics that predispose people to pain, according to Mrs. Belhumeur. “There are risk factors and there are protective factors”. Teenagers who suffer from attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more fragile because they are more emotive: a simple broken heart can make them feel so bad that they can become a danger for themselves. Stories of teenagers involved in car accidents because their anger and pain led them to drive too fast don’t just happen in movies.
Even if all kids don’t reach this level of sadness, their personality and temper determine how they will face this storm.
External risk factors
Parents, who usually represent the first role model for their children and teenagers, can also play a part in the reaction to a broken heart. Separated or unstable parents can have an influence on the way their child will behave in their own personal love life.
The nature and the strength of the bond between a teenager and his parents will also affect the impact and the scope of the rupture, says Mrs. Belhumeur.
Cushion the blow
We can try to protect our children from the harsh realities of life all we want, but there are just some things that they cannot avoid. A broken heart is one of these unavoidable obstacles. Parents can still prepare their teenagers from a brutal fall by building a relationship on strong foundations of trust, says Chantal Belhumeur. “It is important to make sure that your child trusts you if you want him to open up more easily about his sadness. You can also remind him that he can, if he feels the need to do so, confide in a teacher or another family member”.
It is not necessary to warn our child of the possibility of a broken heart, says the psychologist. By creating a climate of trust for our teenager, we show him that our door will always be open and if a separation actually occurs we will be ready with open arms and ears— and a bucket full of advice.
Picking up the pieces of a broken heart
Don’t be fooled! Long before you can offer your long list of wise advice, you must listen to your child if you want to truly help them. Also, you should avoid minimizing the importance of this rupture and most importantly, you should never lecture them with verdicts like: “He/she wasn’t right for you anyway”.
You think that your teen is afflicted but he or she didn’t say anything and doesn’t share his or her thoughts enough? The best thing to do is to talk about general emotions by asking, for example: “Why do you look so angry?” A question like that usually leads to discussion. If, in spite of what you try, your child closes up like an oyster, tell them that it’s okay if they don’t want to talk to you, but that they can if they ever need/want to.
You could also try to make them feel better by cooking their favourite meal or taking them out to their favourite restaurants.
Parents who have a difficult relationship with their teen can guide them to another person of trust. It could be a relative that they have a close bond with, a friend, a school worker or even a teacher.
Even if advising, recommending and guiding are all part of the parent’s job, it can lead you to a dangerous path on your “comforting mission”. Mrs. Belhumeur gave us this warning: “The most important thing to do is to listen. We can give our advice afterwards but there is a red light: if your child doesn’t react like you expected, if he protests, for example, then stop, say you’re sorry and keep on listening…”
Besides, the psychologist recommends keeping your old troubles to yourself. This is no time to project your own experiences on your child by thinking, “I don’t want my child to suffer like I did”.
When the pain doesn’t go away
Just like in a grief process, shock, anger, sadness and acceptation arise after heartbreak.
If your child doesn’t seem to have finished mourning after two or three weeks, you could consider the next step of intervention: outside help. You could ask an uncle, an aunt, a neighbour that your child trusts or professional help, like a psychologist.
The most important thing to remember, though, is not to rush the healing process. Every child needs their own time to grieve and should be able to grieve any way they feel the need to. Eventually, they will start feelilng better and just like their old selves again. Time heals all wounds— or most of them!