Tough Territory: Navigating That First Heartbreak With Your Tween

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break upIt’s been a long time since I’ve been in middle school, but I still wasn’t expecting to have to help my child through heartbreak as a tween. I know kids have been maturing at earlier ages than previously (propelled by social media and the accessibility granted by technology), but one doesn’t generally expect things to get serious in middle school. That was my naïve perception, anyway.

My son had come home from school at the start of 6th grade, declaring that he had a huge crush. This young lady had been a frenemy earlier in life but somehow, through the magic of middle school, had suddenly morphed into a dating possibility.

You are perhaps wondering, as I was, how anyone can even “date” in middle school. I laughed it off, thinking of it as little kids using big terminology. Tweens don’t date; they don’t even know what dating consists of! It can’t be anything more than just a label that makes them feel grown-up and superficially self-assured.

That was very old-fashioned and gullible of me.

Apparently, kids see things in movies or television, on YouTube or Facebook, through memes, Insta, or whatever your poison. But somehow, the things they see (and probably don’t fully understand the consequences of) can become the template for behaviors that they enact themselves. Suddenly, they’re sneaking calls or texts to each other late at night. They’re trying to get together at the movies or school events. They feed off of other peoples’ nosy questions about whether they’re dating, and before they even realize it, they’ve gotten themselves into a social position that they know little about and sure as hell are not ready for. I thought all that was pretty scary. I didn’t realize how much more intense things could get. I wasn’t expecting a heartbreak. 

Overnight it seems, their “relationship” (to use the term loosely) became overwhelming for both of them. Emotions that used to be light and playful became too tied into the other person and too easily manipulated by the whims of someone outside of themselves. There were tremendous ups and downs and many moments of emotional “toying” that were both mind-bogglingly inane and yet tremendously impactful on their unprepared hearts.

I began seeing moodiness, dependency, and crashing reactivity that seemed way beyond what an “innocent” tween “relationship” should be. (Even in retrospect, I can’t reference it seriously, despite its eventual impact).

Then came the first “breakup,” which occurred because the young lady felt pressured to “perform” for a popular girl she was trying to impress and publicly broke up with my son in dramatic fashion. That night, I watched my son suffer in a way that, for him, was gut-wrenchingly profound and more than I could bear.

He cried for hours in his bed, tormented by the sense of loss (of both a best friend and a “girlfriend”), and my heart really and truly broke watching him cry himself to sleep. Nothing I said could ease him, and no amount of helpless comfort offered through my loving hands and a multitude of hugs could make it right.

My little trooper survived the night and the next night and the night after until he could see straight again, but his bravery was fragile.

Back into his life, she came, with renewed promises, and swept him up like a tiny shell into relentless ocean waves. And he got carried along on that stormy relational tide (despite all my protests about what he had just been through and how cautious I’d be if I were him) until she dropped him again. He carried the torch for her for another month, long after her parents and my husband and I got very serious about not letting them see one another, and long after, we enlisted the school to keep them separate as well. It really wasn’t until the end of 6th grade that my son was finally able to move on, despite continual protestations that he had long set aside his feelings.

I am flabbergasted that what I had brushed off as a minor tween crush had transformed into something that so profoundly impacted my child.

Of course, it was the first glimpse of how someday, triggered by some invisible developmental time-clock, he will begin to separate and individuate from his family and formulate an identity and life all his own. I just hadn’t expected it to come as soon as it had, and I didn’t ever think that it would disrupt him as profoundly as it did.

Watching your child go through heartbreak is devastating. When it happens at the tween stage, it’s even more so because they are still young enough to evoke the protectiveness that you’ve given them throughout early childhood, but they are experiencing feelings that are the first stirrings of “growing up.” As such, it’s not as easy to comfort them as you did when they lost their first baseball game or when they broke their favorite toy. Now you’re venturing into the deepest territory of the heart and its emotions, and that is some scary real estate, I’ll tell you.

It’s the first time that you’ll realize that you can’t solve it for them, and neither can you make it disappear. You will experience actual pangs as you watch them cry themselves breathless over something that you cannot change for them.

There’s no parent or teacher that you can enlist in setting things right. This is suddenly between two small humans, and they have to work out this minefield all by themselves because you don’t know what they’re talking about on the bus or in the hallways or fields at middle school. And you have even less control.

That’s when you begin to rely on the things you hope you have instilled in your child over the years.

You hope that they know to communicate what they’re experiencing and not try to repress it until they feel like exploding. You pray that they think they can turn to you or a friend and work out what they are feeling. You wait as they work through the emotional gamut, moving like quicksilver between tears, rage, humiliation, hurt, and back again. You sit by their side as they go through the heartbreak, and you offer your support through silent listening, processing, and talking through the blow-by-blows. If they express what they need and reach out for it, they’ve certainly done all that you could ever hope for, and you, in turn, wind up wishing hard that they will come through it to the other side and quickly.

Their first heartbreak is something new. It really isn’t quite the same as losing good friends through the ebb and tide of childhood likes and dislikes. It doesn’t really hold a candle to other losses because it is unique to the process of developing. But if you can hold them (and YOURSELF) through it, you’ll gain perspective on what they can and how they expect you to support them. You’ll learn it pretty fast too.

The first heartbreak is the hardest because it catches you off guard. But it sure won’t be the last experience, so buckle in and steal your heart.

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May Hwa-Jones was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens. She interned at Rolling Stone Magazine and Elle Magazine in college, and was a freelance editorial assistant at Family Life Magazine. With a Bachelor’s Degree from NYU and a Master’s Degree from Stanford University in Literature, May explored editorial life in NYC, but moved towards a teaching career instead, which led to a teaching certification in secondary education and the eventual achievement of a second Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Denver. As a licensed clinical social worker, May has practiced psychotherapy for nearly seventeen years in multiple settings, from substance abuse clinics in hospitals to community mental health centers, finally finding her passion working with families in a school for severely emotionally disabled children in Westchester County. She is married to a self-proclaimed red neck from Colorado and has three children, who are the beloved centers of chaos in her life. Formerly a ballet dancer and musician for over 20 years, she now does Zumba to keep her joints from locking up and is an avid cheer-soccer-tae kwon do-music-art-dance mom. Her husband regularly begs her to stop volunteering to run more activities, but she never listens to red necks.