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Talking to Your Child About Their First Heartbreak

Our first love can be a highly emotional experience and the same goes for first heartbreak. It’s never easy to see your child hurting, but you can ease their struggle by remaining open and available to listen. Learn how to support your child from Dr. Jami Gross-Toalson, pediatric psychologist at Children's Mercy Kansas City

Talking to Your Child About Their First Heartbreak
Featured Speaker:
Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD

Dr. Gross-Toalson’s career has focused primarily in the areas of organ failure/transplant and cardiology, and helping families maintain normalcy in the midst of health issues. Her professional interests include treatment adherence, health care transition, and family adjustment to illness. At Children’s Mercy, Dr. Gross-Toalson is the Director of Psychological Services for Heart Failure & Transplant, and works within cardiology more broadly to provide clinical services and program development to patients and families coping with pediatric heart conditions. She has spearheaded the development of the Thrive Program, an interdisciplinary program to optimize the psychosocial well-being of cardiac patients and their caregivers across the lifespan. She is also an Associate Professor in the School of Medicine at UMKC and and adjunct faculty in the School of Nursing at UMKC.

Talking to Your Child About Their First Heartbreak

Maggie McKay (Host): I'm not sure there is anything that can truly prepare you for parenting, but especially when your kids feelings are at stake. But knowledge is power, so joining us today is Dr. Jami Gross-Toalson, Pediatric Psychologist at Children's Mercy Kansas City, to tell us how to talk with our child about their first heartbreak. Welcome to The Parent-ish Podcast presented by Children's Mercy. I'm Maggie McKay. So good to have you here today, Dr. Toalson. Thanks for joining us.

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: Thank you for having me.

Host: I have so many questions. First of all, what is heartbreak? Is it a physical or emotional thing?

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: Well, just like any stress or loss that we experience, it can honestly be a little bit of both. I think overall, heartbreak is more of an emotional reaction to losing someone that was a really important person and quite possibly that first [00:01:00] important romantic partner that we have. But just like other stresses can lead to physical symptoms like headaches and fatigue and stomach issues, both in adults and in kids; we can see that after the first heartbreak as well.

Host: So crazy question, but can your heart physically break or it's just those symptoms you talked about?

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: So it's an interesting question because there is something known as broken heart syndrome, and it's a type of heart muscle problem or a cardiomyopathy that can develop after a really intense loss. And really, it just means that the heart muscle gets weakened or stunned. But typically, that's not something we see in kids in regard to their first heartbreak or even one of their early relationships.

Those are the stories that we hear in those older couples who have been together for 50 years or a couple that has been through a lot together and not something we [00:02:00] typically see in kids.

Host: When it comes to tweens and teens, can they actually be feeling love or experience being in love this young?

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: I think one of the age old questions is, is there a difference between loving someone and being in love? Right? We hear it on all of the reality shows and all of the dramas. And so the truth is, teens and tweens love a lot of the people in their life. They love their friends, they love their family, they love their teachers.

So I don't think it's out of realm of normal to think that they could love somebody that they considered a partner or a boyfriend or a girlfriend. And so do I think that they can love? Absolutely. Just like they can love the other people in their lives. Now, that may look very, very different than what we think of as being in love as they get older, more mature, and have a little bit more sense of what those feelings actually feel like.

Host: Is my child overreacting when it comes to these emotions?

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: The short answer is no. Their emotions are their emotions. And it may feel a little [00:03:00] silly to us because we have this whole breadth of experience, this very different worldview, where we know that those relationships that they have when they are 11 or 13 or 15 years old are nothing compared to what they're going to feel for future partners.

But just like it's really exciting to ride a bike for the first time and later we may not feel quite so much excitement when we ride a bike the third or fifth time, the first heartbreak can feel really overwhelming as well and those emotions feel incredibly intense to kids in the moment, especially when it's something they've never felt before.

So while it might seem a little over the top to some of us who are looking at it from the outside, it doesn't feel that way to them.

Host: I totally remember my first heartbreak. Don't you?

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: Absolutely, I do.

Host: I was devastated.

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: Yes.

Maggie McKay (Host): So why is it so overwhelming for them?

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: It's overwhelming really for a lot of different reasons. Like I said before, the first [00:04:00] time that we experience anything exciting and anything that causes that much emotion in us, we're going to remember it. I remember riding my bike the first time. I remember the first time I rode a roller coaster. And I remember my first heartbreak.

In fact, we had that conversation last night with my own daughter talking about my first heartbreak and what that was like. We all remember it. And so it stays in our memory because those big firsts are always salient in our memory, and the ones after that tend to die off a little bit more, and we may not recall them quite as readily.

Host: Exactly. It's so true. Why do I feel so overwhelmed trying to be there for my teen or tween?

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: Well, there's a lot of reasons that this can be a really difficult experience to go through with our children. One of them is because sometimes, like we talked about, that first heartbreak is something that we remember in our own lives. And because it was a heartbreak, it's not necessarily [00:05:00] positive emotions and positive memories that we may have. So sometimes helping our child through their first heartbreak is going to stir up some of those old emotions in us.

At the same time, they could be going through that at the same time that we're going through our own things. We may be going through our own relationship changes or other big stressors in our own life. So watching our child hurt at any point is difficult. And then we have to think about what's happening in the context of our own lives as well.

Host: The big question, Dr. Toalson, what can I do to help them through this?

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: The most important thing that we can do to help our kids through their first heartbreak is to just be there. And sometimes they may not want us and that's no different than any other time that we're dealing with our kids or our teens, right? Sometimes they want us around and sometimes they don't. But this is an especially important time for them to know that we're there to listen and we're not [00:06:00] there to try to fix it. Because even if we can relate to what they're going through, I promise you they are not going to think that we can relate. So we just need to be there with them. We need to listen. And then as they start to move through that heartbreak, get them back into their normal routine.

So things like getting back to sports and spending time with friends that they enjoy. Those normal day day activities that remind them that they are so much more than whatever that relationship was that just ended.

Host: That's a good point. Is there anything I should avoid when supporting my child through this first time experience?

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: I think the biggest thing that we can avoid or should avoid as parents going through this with their child is not to over relate. This is not a time that kids are really going to want to hear about our first heartbreak and our first experience. They're not going to feel like it's the same thing and it's probably just going to annoy them [00:07:00] and push them away from actually talking to us when they need to.

So try to avoid telling them about your first heartbreak unless they ask specifically about it, in which case go for it. I think the other part is really trying to minimize what they're experiencing. Because even though it may not seem like as big of a deal to us, we're not living it in the moment.

We're just watching it from the outside. And so trying to avoid minimizing their feelings or telling them that they're overreacting is going to be really important. Not only so they feel comfortable talking to us at this point, but also so that they feel comfortable coming back to us later with other stress and other struggles that they may be having.

Host: Absolutely. And I think sometimes as parents, it's so hard not to try to fix it and to just listen, but you're right. They just want someone to listen and be there. When should I become concerned if they aren't feeling any better?

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: So I have a couple of rules of thumb when it comes [00:08:00] to this. I tend to use the two week rule. If at two weeks after any big stressful event, including a heartbreak, your child is not starting to get back to their normal, at least trending in that direction, then that's a time where I may start to wonder if it would help them to talk to somebody other than me or other than their friends that they may be talking to.

Maybe talking to the school counselor or a psychologist or some other trusted adult might be important. The other rule that I tend to live by is at any point, if you're concerned that your child is not safe, if they are making statements about feeling hopeless, or statements about not wanting to be around or hurting themselves. Don't wait the two weeks. Those are points where I always think it's important for us to take those statements seriously and seek out some extra help from wherever feels best to us, but some kind of professional help.

Host: And how can I make things easier for my [00:09:00] child the next time this happens?

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: Well, our hope is that we have raised children that can learn from the good and bad things that happen in their lives. And so after any heartbreak, once the emotions have died down, I think it's really helpful for us to be able to go back to that conversation with our child and talk about what did you learn from that relationship?

What are the things that you want to see in your next partner because you learned it from that relationship? Or things that you didn't experience that you'd like to experience in the future? And doing that helps them to start to build this idea in their mind of what's most important the next time around.

I think the other thing that we can do is talk about the boundaries of that relationship, did the boundaries feel healthy to you? Did you spend enough time with your friends? And so going back and kind of reviewing the relationship whenever your child feels comfortable doing so, is a really important way to help them learn from it [00:10:00] and take that into future relationships.

Host: Dr. Toalson, is it a good idea to talk to your child before they even start dating about heartbreak? I think that would kind of scare them, but when is it acceptable for a child to date? And should you talk about it before they date?

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: So this is a tough question because we all know that there are differences between having a crush and having a girlfriend or boyfriend or partner, and dating, and all of these terms change with every generation. And so, the other thing that we notice is that kids are starting to consider themselves boyfriend and girlfriend maybe even earlier than we did in our generation, which can feel really uncomfortable for us as parents sometimes.

So, even in elementary school, we'll hear kids talk about having crushes. We may even hear them use the term girlfriend or boyfriend, but that's going to look a little bit different than it will in middle school and high school and so on. So the time that it's appropriate really is [00:11:00] going to be dependent on the family.

And it's an important discussion for the adults in the family to have first about what they feel comfortable with and then be able to communicate that with their child. But I don't think it's ever a bad time to talk about the stressors that can happen from a relationship. And especially when kids are starting to talk about having a crush or having a partner or a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Talking about the fact that I'm so glad you have this person in your life that's making you happy, that's making you feel these things. And, sometimes those relationships last, but often they don't. And whenever that happens, let's make sure that we're talking about it. And I want to be here for you. But the actual timeline of what works is going to be a family decision based on your own family beliefs and values.

Host: And in closing, is there anything else you'd like to add that we didn't touch upon?

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: There really is an opportunity for incredible growth, not only for your child, [00:12:00] but for the relationship that the two of you have as they grow up.

Because it's this salient event that they really can learn a lot from and they're going to learn about themselves. They're going to learn about their relationships and how they want to experience those. And they're going to learn a lot about what kind of parent you're going to be in times of stress as well.

So as hard as that first heartbreak is, truly for all of us; I really think it's a great opportunity for there to be some really amazing things that come from it.

Host: Well, being a parent is so hard to navigate and especially when trying to protect our kids' feelings. So thank you so much for this useful advice. It's been really informative and you've given us a lot of good ideas about how to approach this topic.

Jami Gross-Toalson, PhD: Thank you so much for having me.

Host: Again, that's Dr. Jami Gross-Toalson. And if you'd like to find out more, please visit That's [00:13:00] P-A-R-E-N-T-I-S-H. If you found this podcast helpful, please share it on your social channels and check out our entire podcast library for topics of interest to you. I'm Maggie McKay. Thanks for listening. This is The Parent-ish Podcast from Children's Mercy.