Breaking up Is Hard to Do: How to Support Your Child Through a Breakup

By Shiri Lichtenstein, Psy.D.

We’ve all experienced the heartache of a breakup, when it feels like the world is going to end and you can’t imagine life without the person that just dumped you or with whom you broke up. If you are a parent, it’s hard to see your child (your baby) so miserable, and your first instinct might be to tell them, “Get out there and meet new people,” or the popular cliché, “There are other fish in the sea.”

Your experience of living in the real world has taught you that, with time, your student will most likely move on and perhaps even laugh about their "puppy love" in college. Nevertheless, it’s important to support your love-sick student in a way that feels supportive, by meeting them where they are at.

What to Do and Not to Do

First, steer clear of bad-mouthing the ex. Your student may still have strong feelings for this person, and reconciliation could occur. You don’t want to become the "bad guy" who said those awful things about your child’s partner.

Second, don’t encourage your student to go out and meet someone new if they are not ready. I know it’s tempting to tell your child they are still young and will meet someone, but that’s probably not what they want to hear right away. Grief is a process that needs to be endured to allow the person to move through it, and as hard as you try, you cannot expedite that process. Your student will through various stages of grief, one step at a time (although the stages are often not linear).

Alternatively, consider encouraging your student to remain active by exercising, going for a walk or hike, taking a dance class, or spending time with supportive and positive friends. Show your caring by sending homemade cookies or a care package with your student's favorite items. If your child lives close by, offer to take them on an outing. Making tangible changes, such as getting a new haircut or buying new clothes, can also be helpful, as this may symbolize a fresh start.

Not only can breakups be painful, but they can also be a source of shame and embarrassment, so consider sharing about a difficult or embarrassing breakup you experienced. This might even strengthen your relationship with your child.

Most importantly, listen to what your student has to say, even if it sounds unreasonable, and give them space! Let them know that you love them and you are always there to listen, day or night. Keep your cell phone on and/or make yourself available by chat or Skype. When your student is ready to talk, practice empathy and active listening. We are solution-oriented beings; our instinct may be to provide an answer, but your child probably just wants to cry and vent about their heartache. Let them know you understand their pain, and show that you love them and can tolerate what they are telling you.

When to Seek Additional Help

If your child begins to skip classes, struggle academically, or experience signs of depression (changes in sleep and appetite, low or flat mood, social withdrawal, suicidal thoughts), then encourage them to make an appointment at CAPS by stopping by or calling us during business hours at (415) 422-6352. Our After Hours line (same number as our business line) is available to USF students and their loved ones for support or consultation when our office is closed.