My son, who will be 16 soon, broke up with his girlfriend four weeks ago. They knew each before and got together at the Gaeltacht in June. To be honest, I was glad when they broke up as it seemed a bit of an intense relationship for him so young (she is the same age) and he will be doing his Junior Cert this year. The problem is that he is totally distraught at the break-up. He seems to be crying a lot and has become withdrawn and depressed.
I’m not sure of the details of the break-up, but I thought he had initiated it, but it now seems it was her decision (her parents might have persuaded her to take a break too, as I know they would be concerned about the Junior Cert this year as well).
I’m worried about the impact of the break-up on him – he does not seem motivated about anything. I try to tell him he will get through it etc, but he rolls his eyes and says I don’t understand. Yesterday, he got in a rage at me, saying it was my fault because I wanted the relationship to end, and that I didn’t care about him etc. I was very upset. How should I best help him?
Falling in and out of love for the first time is an intense experience for teenagers. At a time when their emotions are already heightened by the hormones of adolescence, then they experience the rollercoaster of falling for someone and then losing them. As parents, it can be hard for us to remember just how intense the feelings of the teenage years are and just how important first relationships (however short) can feel in their lives. The fact that this is the first time means they have no perspective to put the experience into context and it can feel like a devastating experience.
As parents, it is important to understand and appreciate what they are going through. While you can hope that they don’t have to go through the ‘break-up experience’ until they are older and more able to cope, many young teenagers do start relationships and you can’t protect them from this pain.
Be there to support your son
The most important thing you can do is be there to support your son. Be prepared to go the journey with him and the ups and downs of his emotions. You can be there to listen and be a shoulder to cry on but be careful about rushing him or ‘fixing him’ (which he will experience as you not understanding him). Patient support and understanding is the order of the day.
While you might hold the belief that he will get through this loss and that life will move on, you may not not tell him directly. Instead, you can be a rock of support and let him get through things at his own pace.
Encourage him to talk
Though he may not want to share all the details of his feelings with you, it is very important to listen when he does talk. While he will only open up when he is ready, it is likely that he will feel better when he ‘vents’ and gets things off his chest. I can understand that you might have felt upset when he blamed you for his feelings, but try to see this as positive – it is better that he is talking to you rather than bottling things up. Try not to be initially defensive and instead listen. For example, you might say – “I’m sorry that you feel that way, I’m only want you to be happy” or “let me know what I can do to help”.
Offer tangible support
As well as listening, sometimes making a gesture of tangible support can help. For example, you might organise a treat or special trip for him or even cook a special meal for him. This is a tangible way of acknowledging with him that you know he is going through a hard time and that you want to do something nice for him. Encourage him to get involved in the activities he enjoys as well as getting out there to meet friends etc. All this will help him cope and move on.
Let things move on at their own pace
With the new school year starting, things will probably change quickly. Indeed, by the time you read this answer it is likely that he will have moved on and got caught up in the busy school schedule with all the associated sports and extra curricular activities. Having the routine and challenge of school is likely to help him.
Keep an eye on his coping
Be mindful that getting over a first relationship is a big deal and, though unlikely, sometimes it can be a trigger for depression or other mental-health issues. If you feel he is not coping as the school year progresses, consider getting some extra support for him. In his secondary school, there may be a school counsellor who can help or he could contact a teen counselling service such as jigsaw.ie
Prof. John Sharry, Irish Times Health+
This article was originally published in The Irish Times in September 2018. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every second Tuesday. For information on John’s books and courses for parents see www.solutiontalk.ieSeptember 2018