Breaking up is hard to watch


By Lisa M. Schab

An eye catches an eye in study hall; a smile in the hallway sends a heart soaring; a first touch, a first kiss, a first slow dance, and the teenager breaks her way into the wonder and angst that is love.

Romantic love, and all of the rosy, breathless, joy-filled sensations that go with it, is often first experienced during the adolescent years. As preteens, children use romantic relationships to learn about themselves by experimenting with who they want to be and how they want to live. They try out powers of persuasion, learn to set limits and explore their comfort with emotional intimacy. Preteens may go through a series of short "relationships," (from one to five days) from which they quickly recover. Their talk about dating someone may mean a shared lunch in the cafeteria or a phone call after school. Most kids at this age move from one love interest to the next without much trouble because they don't have the desire or ability to establish deeper emotional ties.

As they become teenagers, however, romantic love can become paramount. Their self-esteem soars or plummets in reaction to acceptance or rejection.

A love interest can take on great magnitude in the course of daily life. Trips to the mall, the library or athletic events may all be determined by whether or not she will be there. Perfect clothing, hair and complexion become crucial in hopes that he will notice. Social and academic life, even plans for the future, can revolve around the steady boyfriend or girlfriend. Dating relationships increase in both depth and duration as teens develop the skills and desire necessary to sustain them. Although a few high school sweethearts do end up celebrating their 50th wedding anniversaries many years later, most relationships at this age last less than a year.

As adults, most of us can remember the thrills of first love and the heart-wrenching pain that accompanies its loss. When we watch our own children begin romantic relationships, we may long to protect them from the pain of the break-up. We cannot. When the break-up inevitably arrives, the best we can do is to be available to help them through it.

When your child is suffering from the end of a romantic relationship, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

• Don't try to minimize the relationship. Saying, "Oh, for goodness sake, you're only 15. Did you think you were going to marry him?" or, "Come on, this was just puppy love. You don't know what real love is," will not help. It will only reinforce her belief that you don't understand. While you may be absolutely right, your child saw the relationship as significant and intense. Your rationalizations will not change that.

•"I told you so" will not help either. Even if you were right, keep it to yourself. It doesn't matter if you knew this relationship would never last. It doesn't matter that you saw the break-up coming, or that you warned your child. When your teen is in emotional pain, it does not help him to hear you think you are smarter.

• Don't criticize the person who broke up with her. It can backfire. When your teen is expressing anger at the boy who dumped her, she may rake him over the coals. Anger is often a defense against pain. It is normal for her to lash out at him. It is not right for you to do the same. Even if you never liked the guy, your criticisms may feel hurtful to your child. She may want to remain friends with the boy or even get back together with him at some point. If that happens, you'll regret what you have said.

• Offer to lend a sympathetic ear. Your teen may prefer to share his heartache with friends rather than parents. But let him know that you are there to listen. If he accepts your invitation, hold back on the advice. Allow your child to talk without interruption. It is one of the most generous and helpful things you can do. It will help put things into perspective. All of this helps him to process his grief and move through his pain.

If she does ask for advice, remind her:

• It is normal to feel upset when you have had a loss.

• She will get through it faster if she lets her feelings out in an appropriate way.

• She has survived other losses and, although it feels awful now, she will survive this one too.

• Safe activities will help her take her mind off her sadness for a while. Rent a funny movie to watch with her, or encourage her to go out with friends.

• You have suffered through break-ups of your own and survived. If she is interested, share them. If not, keep the focus on her.

• Watch for signs of depression. Most teens will eventually recover from a break-up on their own, but very sensitive kids, or those already struggling, may need some help. If your child's grades slip or he begins skipping classes, if he begins isolating himself from friends or refuses to participate in usual activities, if his sleeping or eating patterns are severely altered, he may not be able to bounce back by himself. Check with his school counselor or someone from your place of worship for a referral to a professional counselor who can help him get back on a healthy track.

Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 19 and 23. 


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