Q: My daughter is a 10th grader and just broke up with her boyfriend she was dating for four months. She ended the relationship but is acting devastated. I want to understand what she is going through, but I’m confused, frustrated and worried, since dating this boy for such a short period of time made such an impact.
A: Breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend is a major stressor in the life of a teenager. A teenager’s intimate relationships take on special meaning. For starters, having a boyfriend or girlfriend is a way to define yourself among your peers. Also, most teens feel insecure about themselves, so revealing their intimate thoughts and feelings makes them feel extremely vulnerable. Losing that relationship can feel catastrophic! So there is no surprise when teenagers act as if a break up marks the “end of the world.”
As a parent, how you respond in this situation is tricky. Certainly, you don’t want to agree with your teen’s view that life is over, but be careful not to minimize her feelings either. If you push her to get over this loss too quickly, she may feel ashamed of her feelings and turn that shame inward. Or she might rally to defend the relationship and prove to you just how meaningful it is (or was), both of which only prevent her from moving on.
Once you can understand the importance of intimate relationships in the life of a teenager, you will feel more compassionate and less worried about your daughter’s dramatic response.
Q: My son is very preoccupied and distracted by his recent breakup with his girlfriend. He is daydreaming instead of studying, and I’m sure his grades will suffer. I want to talk to him about the breakup, but I’m worried that focusing on the situation will cause him to think more about her and concentrate less on school. Help!
A: It is completely natural for a teenager to ruminate about a relationship breakup to get a better understanding of what happened. While it seems counterintuitive to focus on something in order to get over it, talking to your son about the relationship (maybe a few times) is a productive way help him process the situation and move on. Here are some tips on what you can “focus” on:
Let him know that you realize that this relationship was important. Ask him to talk about why it was so important, what he liked and disliked about the person, what he would like to see happen and what would help him move on. While he may have trouble putting all of this into words, asking relays that you understand this relationship was special to him and that it‘s okay to think about what happened.
Ask if he has one trusted friend (not someone who will gossip) that he can talk to at school when he is feeling sad or preoccupied. Even talking to a teacher or school counselor could be helpful if your son feels too vulnerable to talk to peers. Suggest talking to that person for a few minutes about the issue and then encourage him to get back to the task at hand. Remind him that distraction will help him feel better, even if just for a short while.
Let him know that all meaningful relationships take time to get over. Remind your son that initially this breakup will be very painful and it will be something he thinks about a lot, but that over time he will slowly start to be himself again (he is probably freaked out that he can‘t concentrate). This gives him a way to put his feelings in perspective while also giving him hope for the future.
Q: My daughter is a senior and going to college in the fall. She is very sad and distressed about saying good-bye to her boyfriend of a year and a half. I’ve tried to make her feel better by reassuring her that she’ll find another great guy in college but that doesn’t seem to work. This is a part of life and she has to move on.
A: As someone who has had more experience, you know that she will meet another person at some point. With this said, conveying that “there are more fish in the sea” tends to minimize a year-and-a-half relationship, which for a teen feels like a lifetime. Saying anything that minimizes this relationship, such as, “you can’t fall in love when you are so young, you don’t know what love is; he was your first boyfriend, you’ll have many more, get over it already“ will only land you in hot water. Try your best to see this relationship as a meaningful, deep and defining experience for your teen. Don’t judge or compare it to an adult relationship. In addition, allow your teen to mourn the loss of this relationship rather than seek a replacement to get over the hurt and loneliness.
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Dr. Gabriella Johr is a psychologist in private practice at Orenstein Solutions in Cary. She enjoys helping children, teens and their families feel better and function at their best. Contact Orenstein Solutions at (919) 428-2766, ext. 0, or visit www.orensteinsolutions.com for more information.