By Richard Hogan
As our children move into the adolescent years, we often, as parents, worry about what’s ahead.
In my own practice, I have noticed that parents often come into therapy because their teenager’s romantic relationship has ended.
Their once full-of-life child is now sulking around the house or up in their room, quietly crying to themselves. While our impulse can be to dismiss the relationship, by saying something like ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea’ or ‘come on, forget it, you’ll meet someone else,’ these words can increase the tension in the house, as the child becomes further exasperated at being misunderstood or not being taken seriously.
They come to view the parent as just another person who doesn’t understand what they are going through. And this can often lead to conflict in the house. The teenager can respond to that type of sentiment with hurtful words and parents often find themselves launching hurtful retorts because they have become locked into a negative pattern of reciprocity.
I had a parent come to me recently looking for advice on how to help her son to get over a relationship. She described the tensions and stress in the house.
Her son had become withdrawn and moody and she had been on the receiving end of a few harsh words.
She didn’t know what to do or say. She told me: ‘everything I seem to say makes him angry’. When I asked her what she was saying to him, she told me that she reassures him that everything is going to be okay.
When I enquired further as to what she actually said to him, she told me: ‘I told him he was worth ten of her and that he will meet a nicer girl and that it’s only a phase’. She smiled.
‘That doesn’t sound great when I say it now; maybe that’s why he shouted at me.’ It was clear that while she wanted to help, her efforts were compounding the situation.
So what should you do?
One of the most important things you can do as a parent of a child mourning the end of a relationship is to recall what it was like for you when you first felt the pain of a broken heart.
We’ve all been there; remembering that should help you to gain some insight into the situation your child is in. Remember how it felt when someone told you to get over it!
Don’t dismiss their feelings
Phrases like ‘it’s only a phase’ or ‘you’ll get over it’ increase the conflict in the house because the teenagers sense their feelings are being diminished.
Instead, say ‘that must be hard. What do you miss about her/him?’ This way, you are inviting a gentle conversation. And you are also acknowledging and validating their feelings.
Try not to force the conversation. Boys like to initiate the conversation. Find an activity that you can both do together, like going for a swim or a drive in the car. This might give him the opportunity to bring up how he has been feeling.
When they do broach the topic, be gentle and listen. Try to avoid rushing in with clichés or platitudes. Instead, be present and listen.
And show them that you have listened by telling them what you have heard. For example: ‘It sounds like the last few weeks have been hard for you; you really liked her. I can tell by how you are speaking about her’
What is the behaviour telling us?
When I’m working in schools and I have to have a conversation with a student about their behaviour in the classroom, I always ask myself: what is the behaviour saying to me? All behaviour is a form of communication.
So, when a child becomes distressed about the end of a relationship, it is important, as parents, to ask ourselves the question: what is this behaviour telling us?
When a child finds it difficult to move on from a relationship or they become fixated on a person they have recently dated, it should serve as a red flag about their self-esteem. I saw a girl who was particularly distraught about being ‘dumped.’
In the first few sessions, she described how she really missed him and how her life had become worthless and meaningless. When I asked her what she missed the most about him, it became clear what was really going on for this girl.
She described how things in the family home were incredibly strained and how her boyfriend had been the one thing she looked forward to meeting.
And now that was over. The relationship was a form of escapism for her, so it really wasn’t about being ‘dumped’, it was about being dumped back into the family. We must endeavour to understand what the behaviour is trying to say to us.
That way, we can truly be there for our children, when they go through a negative experience on their romantic journey to adulthood.
Phrases like ‘it’s only a phase’ or ‘you’ll get over it’ increase the conflict