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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Healing the heartache

By Zenaida Serrano
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Through empathy and support, parents can help teens dealing with broken relationships.

Illustration by JON ORQUE | The Honolulu Advertiser

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What should parents do and not do to help their teens cope with their first real breakup? June W.J. Ching, a clinical psychologist in Honolulu, offers these tips:

Avoid the temptation to say "I told you so." Your automatic response may be to say, "I told you not to take this relationship so seriously," or, "I told you that you couldn't trust him." These statements are prone to making your teen feel more like a failure and are counterproductive to letting your teen know you care.

Be empathic. Showing empathy means trying to put yourself in your child's place. Try to remember how you felt with your first big emotional breakup. How did you feel? Recall the most important reactions from others that were helpful to you.

Practice active listening. Active listening is a powerful tool in connecting to your child. Let your child do the talking and accept whatever they are feeling at that time. Avoid minimizing or discounting their feelings. Use open-ended questions and try not to interrupt while your teen is talking. For example, "What happened?" "How are you doing?" "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Avoid a lecture. Now is not the time to be judgmental and critical of their mistakes or choices in the relationship that just ended. Your child is already obsessing about what they might have done wrong. When they are ready, you can talk about what they learned or how they can use the experience for future relationships.

Encourage peer support. Encourage them to keep in touch with their friends and to share information about the breakup with peers they trust. Help them get back into a routine with their interests as soon as they are ready. This helps your teen recognize that others care and they can do something concrete about feelings of loneliness.

Help to rebuild self-confidence. It's easy to lose perspective in the throes of a breakup. Help them see that even though the relationship ended, it was the relationship that failed, but they themselves are not failures.

Monitor for prolonged grieving and depression. Sadness and grieving are normal reactions, but consider getting professional help if: your teen seems to be depressed for more than a couple of weeks or expresses not wanting to go on; there is marked change in their sleep or appetite; there is a total withdrawal from family and friends; or there is a loss of interest in school and activities. The Hawaii Psychological Association has a free online referral service: www.hawaiipsychology.org.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Parents: How have you helped your tweens or teens get through a breakup? Join the discussion at HAWAII.MOMSLIKEME.COM.

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As the mother of teenage girls, Jasmine Mau-Mukai knows a thing or two about mending broken hearts.

The Niu Valley resident, 53, recalls "dropping everything" to comfort one of her daughters after a particularly devastating breakup.

"It is important to just be immediately available," said Mau-Mukai, whose daughters are 19 and 15.

When teens even tweens go through their first real breakup from a relationship, it's critical for parents to be there for them and acknowledge their feelings, said June W.J. Ching, a clinical psychologist in Honolulu. Being young doesn't make them immune from experiencing heartache and grief, she said.

"Regardless of your child's age or the duration of this initial relationship weeks, months or a year if they regarded the relationship as a meaningful one, the sense of loss, hurt and disappointment is truly stressful," Ching said.

Parents should recognize that teens deal with pain and heartache in different ways, Ching noted. Some may openly cry, be irritable or angry, or isolate themselves from family and friends.

"There is no 'right' way to grieve the loss of a first breakup, but parents can send a vital message that they care and want to be supportive during this difficult time," Ching said.

And parents who make an effort to comfort their teens will reap benefits far beyond healing young hearts.

"This is an opportunity for parents to actually connect with their child during this delicate process, to help your child learn important life lessons within adversity," Ching said.

It's also a chance for parents to show their teens that they can relate to their feelings of helplessness and hurt.

"True empathy is a powerful tool when you are trying to support your child," Ching said. "Once they perceive you as understanding and caring, you can then introduce key coping skills that are inevitable with (other) hardship and hurts in life."

While Violet Shimoko believes dating is inappropriate for children until the late teen years, "the reality is that children are exposed to far more than we parents are able to control these days," Shimoko said. Shimoko is the founder of ClubCharm, an after-school program for girls ages 7 to 12.

Shimoko remembers when her only child, a son, now 21, went through his first real heartache as a ninth-grader in high school. Shimoko said he reached out to her, telling her how hurt he felt over the broken relationship.

"Through hugs and shared tears, I couldn't help but say, 'I love you. You are a wonderful person. Keep developing yourself, son, and you will attract the person of your dreams,' " Shimoko recalled.

Turning the attention away from the hurt and instead toward how much you love your teens validates their self-worth, Shimoko said.

"It translates into the all-important, 'It matters that I exist,' " Shimoko said.

Shimoko also suggests parents engage their children in a heart-to-heart discussion when things calm down, coach them to express their feelings through words, and encourage them to confide in trusted friends.

Mau-Mukai, the mom of two teen girls, added that parents can cheer up their heartbroken teens with little comfort items or simple gestures fixing a favorite snack, hiding a surprise note of support in a backpack or giving a Starbucks gift card, for example.

"It just helps them feel like somebody cares," Mau-Mukai said.

Reach Zenaida Serrano at 535-8174 or zserrano@honoluluadvertiser.com. Follow her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/zenaidaserrano.