QUESTION: My son was going out with a girl for the past two years, since he was 15. They broke up a couple of months ago and, at the time, my husband and I were relieved as we thought it was becoming a little intense and distracting him from his studies. However, it has hit him hard and he has become really down about it. Last week he found out she was seeing someone else and he was devastated.
I don’t know how to help him at all. He’s very angry all the time at home and we can’t seem to talk about it. When I asked him how he was doing yesterday he blew up at me, saying it was my fault that they had broken up because I had been against him going out with her from the start. This isn’t true and I was really taken aback by how angry he was and I feel bad that he somehow blames me for all this.
Have you any ideas on how we can help him get through all of this?
Just as falling in love for the first time is one of life’s most intense experiences, so the loss of your first love can be one of the most traumatic.
As parents it is easy to forget just how significant these first relationships can be to young people and we can easily dismiss them as unimportant or expect teenagers to get over them quickly when they end. However, such break-ups can be heart-breaking and result in a really hard time for the young person.
In my clinical practice, frequently the break-up of a relationship can trigger a period of depression in young people and it is a time when they need extra support.
In addition, young people frequently go through these experiences when they don’t have as many coping skills or the perspective they might have when older.
The situation can be harder for boys, who frequently find it harder to recognise and express their feelings around loss and sadness. And sometimes the peer group culture of other boys may not be much help to them in coping.
As a result, you are right to be concerned as a parent and to think as to how you can support your son through this period.
Helping your son communicate
It can be notoriously hard to get boys to communicate about their feelings of loss and vulnerability. Inquiries as to how they are feeling can be brushed off, dismissed or simply lead to denials that anything is wrong.
Frequently, the only way you know a boy is upset about something is indirectly through his irritable, grumpy or silent withdrawn behaviour. I would interpret the fact that he “blew up” at you as a break- through.
Though what he said is not fully true and might be hurtful, the fact that he is expressing his anger and upset outwardly is a start and likely to be helpful to getting things off his chest.
Though the temptation is to be defensive or react angrily in return, it can be helpful to first listen and to encourage him to say more about how he is feeling.
You might need to follow up with him about what he said and explain your concern for him – “Your dad and I were a little worried about you being involved with someone so young when you have all your studies but we were never against it, we would always support you.”
Checking in with your son
Though it is important not to overdo it, it is useful to check in periodically with your son about how he is. Asking gentle and direct questions (“How are you feeling about what happened with N?”) can often be the best way to approach things.
Use the fact that he “blew up” as an opportunity to talk to him at another time – “You sounded very upset when we spoke last time . . . how are you doing now?”
Even if he does not respond openly, use this as an opportunity to say you are there for him – “Look I know it hit you pretty hard what happened with N, I am here for you if you ever want to talk.”
Picking a good time to talk
There is a saying that the “windows” to boys’ souls open only briefly, meaning that you have to be ready to seize the day and respond any time they do talk to you.
Sometimes boys are more likely to open up when you are doing “other things” such as when you are alone together during household activities or even when travelling in the car alone together.
Without raising anything yourself, try to be there when your son is most likely to talk, whether this is late at night or when he comes in from school.
It is also important to show by your actions that you understand what he is going through and that you support him, whether this is simply making him his favourite meal more or practically encouraging him to see his friends or something more substantial like providing him support to go on a special trip or take up a new activity.
Seek more support if depression does not lift
You would, of course, expect your son to get through the challenge of the break-up over the next few months. Your support and understanding will hopefully help.
Acknowledging to him that this is a hard time, as well as expressing the belief that he will get through it in his own good time, will be helpful to him.
However, stay tuned into how he is doing, and if you feel his mood does not lift, or his depression gets worse, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. In the first instance you might want to make contact as a concerned parent and get advice as to how to proceed.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, March 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.