How to Help Your Teenager Survive a Break-up
Q: My tenth-grade son’s girlfriend of six months recently broke up with him and he’s really sad. I’m afraid it’s affecting his self-esteem. I’m not looking forward to winter break because he’s going to miss her even more. Is there something I can do to help him get through this?
A: Being there without getting in the way is sometimes tricky for parents when their child is struggling with a break-up. You may have memories of the things you learned about yourself as you had crushes, dated and then were left by boyfriends in your youth. Those stories may help your son, when he is ready, but right now it is time for him to learn for himself what helps him cope with a break- up. This may be a tougher split if they were planning to go to a winter formal or some special event over the holidays.
If this was a first relationship, then it could be tougher still unless it felt brief to him. Much of the struggle may have more to do with hopes for an unimagined future than with reality. It is harder to deal with fantasy than reality. Your role may be helping your son deal with his hopes for the relationship that were never able to develop.
His girlfriend broke up with him. What did she say was the reason? Did it make sense to him? Did he agree or disagree with her reason? If either his girlfriend or his friends also blame him or keep the break-up issues alive, it will take longer for healing to take place. Not all dating relationships last. It is normal to have break-ups. The goal is to learn how to handle disappointments.
Your son’s attitude about the break-up might influence how he handles it emotionally. If he has a habit of blaming himself for everything, putting himself down, and doubting himself, then he may struggle more, especially if he has a hard time acknowledging his strengths and sets unrealistic expectations of both himself and others. I imagine that you and other family members have established a habit of noticing the things he does well in order to challenge his self-evaluation. If not, you might like to see if he thought anything had gone well in the relationship.
There might be a few other things that get in his way. If he has a habit of dwelling on issues, being negative and staying stuck, the split will be harder. If he thinks well of himself, understands why things didn’t work out, and knew that this was a learning experience, then he will do better.
During the early stages of the break-up, your most important role is to make sure he isn‘t getting too depressed, and to listen when he is able to talk about it without moving too quickly to reassure him or tell him your own past stories. That is harder than it sounds. Make sure you don’t make too big a deal of the break-up with him. He may be far more resilient than you know.
Think about what behaviors might indicate he isn’t handling things well, and let go of worry unless you see those persisting for over a month. These may include:
- Talking about himself negatively.
- Isolating himself from his friends.
- Over-eating or not eating.
- Sleeping all the time or staying up all night and day.
If you notice marked changes in his basic nature that persist, then you might want to suggest that he talk to someone about it.
Winter break may allow an opportunity to plan new activities. Help him think about what he wants to do over that time. In fact, it may be a relief not seeing her at school every day. It can help him adjust and make peace with the break-up more privately. Keeping busy for many people helps the time pass. Have there been things you have heard that your son wants to do? Might the break be a great time for a project or a new hobby?
If he is focusing on everything he liked about his former girlfriend, he can learn from it to know what he will look for in his next relationship. With time often comes some perspective that will help him understand what went wrong in the first place. He can learn from that as well. If he has some ideas now, go ahead and listen to them. It is useful for us to have a list of the reasons why the relationship didn’t work out. Many find it helpful to keep that list on them all the time. They pull it out and reread it when they find themselves stuck on grieving the relationship.
Some couples are able to step away from relationships and remain friends without confusing the break-up and reopening the relationship. Listen to your son if he is on that path. If he starts thinking that friendship means his ex has changed her mind, encourage him to get clarification and not make assumptions.
If none of these steps help, think of ways your son could either help the family or go visit relatives over the winter break as a change in scenery and a way to take his thoughts off himself, at least for the long break. Good luck!