What Not to Say to Your Heartbroken Child
The words you choose can ease the pain or they can make matters worse
Several years back, my then-college-age daughter called me while I was at work. She was in tears because a boy she was “dating” had dumped her. I listened for a while to her sobs and said a few things about her ex I thought would be comforting. She slammed down the phone, and, though I felt perturbed, I picked up my notebook and went into a scheduled meeting.
While my co-workers and I settled into our seats around the conference table, I asked an older colleague, whose children were in their 20s and 30s: “What do you say when your kid is going through a breakup?”
“One thing for sure, you don’t badmouth the guy,” she warned. “They might get back together and then your daughter will remember everything you said and use it as a reason to get mad at you.”
Everyone in the room laughed. This woman’s daughter was in an on-again-off-again engagement. Because of the way sound traveled in our loft-like office, we had all overheard her daily conversations with her daughter.
The 'I Can Fix It' Mindset
Today’s parents of young adults are generally more involved in their children’s lives than our parents were in ours. “Society is increasingly more mobile in the way people move all around — but our ways of staying in touch over the miles are increasing, too,” says Robin Deutsch, director of the Center of Excellence for Children, Families and the Law at William James College.
“Baby boomer parents are more aware of their children than their parents were of them because they see their grown kids in pictures on Instagram and Facebook. They know what their now-adult children look like in different settings. This makes them feel close, and they want to fix things they see go wrong,” Deutsch explains.
As much as we want to jump in and clean up any mess our twenty- or thirtysomething children might be in, though, it’s a good idea to know when and where to draw the line — something that's especially difficult when we see our child is suffering.
Lynn Pounce, an about-to-be retired schoolteacher from Wisconsin, is an example of the 50+ parent in this situation. “Last year, when my son’s fiancée broke off their engagement because his State Department job had sent him to a country in Africa where she didn’t want to go, he started questioning his whole career path,” she recalls. Pounce was furious with her son’s ex-betrothed for upending his life. “Then I realized that what was really upsetting him was losing her, someone he considered his partner, and now he felt alone,” she says. “I wanted to get on a plane and make it all better, but Africa is pretty far away.”
Finding the Right Way to Say It
One of the hardest things about parenting young adults who are riding out the waves of romantic difficulties is resisting the urge to barge in with our parenting toolbox and repair their leaky boats. “The goal of parenting is to let go, give up control and be available as needed, but not more than that,” Deutsch says. “We’re also supposed to help them, throughout childhood and young adulthood, to develop good coping skills.”
That means when an adult child calls us for sympathy — or sends us a text that reveals their love-life has suffered a setback — we have to repress our urge to say the first thing that comes to mind and instead offer advice that our child can choose to use or not to help with the healing.
Trouble is, it’s so hard not to say what you really feel. In the interests of being prepared, Deutsch gives good guidance about the words that should not slip from our lips and the ones that our child needs to hear instead:
When your adult child tells you: He says I’m not good enough to marry him.
Don’t say: What a jerk! He’s not good enough for you is more like it.
Say instead: It sounds like he has been carrying some anger and mixed feelings for a while. Have you picked up on that?
The why behind your words: Deutsch says words like “you’re not good enough for me” in “serious” relationships reveal that the partner doing the rejecting has unresolved negative feelings that may have as much or more to do with his own view of himself than with a true assessment of your child. The ex probably is a jerk, but saying so doesn’t help. Your job as a parent is to enable your child to step back and look at the situation from a distance.
When your adult child tells you: I caught her cheating. With my friend.
Don’t say: She was always bad news.
Say instead: Wow. I imagine you’re feeling betrayed by both of them. How are you planning on dealing with it?
The why behind your words: “Don’t make assumptions,” Deutsch says. Instead, ask questions about your child’s feelings. For all you know, your child is going to forgive the partner. Or there may be a whole backstory about which you know nothing.
When your adult child tells you: I’m never going to get over this.
Don’t say: Romances are like buses. Wait five minutes and another will come along.
Say instead: I understand how painful this is right now. My guess is you’ll always reflect on this with pain, but it will integrate with all your other experiences. Right now your experience is like torture, but it won’t always have the same strength of feeling.
The why behind your words: You don’t want to invalidate your child’s feelings, Deutsch says. Instead, acknowledge the feeling. We know that most people do get over broken hearts, so let your child know that as bad as the pain is now, there is a future where the pain will hurt less.
When your adult child tells you: I must be a terrible person if she can’t love me.
Don’t say: She’s the terrible person.
Say instead: I understand why you’re feeling that way now, but let’s think about other relationships with friends and family that you’ve had. These are all people who love you and think you’re valuable.
The why behind your words: At this moment, your child feels like he doesn’t amount to much. The one he loves has rejected him, and he still places value on his ex’s judgment. To dismiss the beloved is to dismiss your child, too. Instead of telling your child he’s wrong in his self-assessment, remind him of those who love him. Most likely what you say won’t change his feelings at the moment, but you’ve given him a nugget of comfort he can build on when he’s ready.
When your adult child tells you: I’m so lonely. I have no one to talk to because he never let me have friends.
Don’t say: OMG. You are so lucky to be rid of him. That’s abuse, you know.
Say instead: I’m thinking you have learned a lot about the kinds of relationships you do want.
The why behind your words: The behavior your child is reporting does indeed sound like emotional abuse, in which case she may need professional help, Deutsch says. If there is abuse involved, the last thing you want to do is shut down her willingness to talk to you.
The Bottom Line
No matter how or what your adult child chooses to tell you about a heartbreak, you want to respond in way that will foster a deeper conversation.
“Be prepared to stop right there or open the door so they can say more,” Deutsch says. “You don’t want to use a one-liner that shuts them down.”