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Child Caring

Picking up the pieces after a traumatic teenage breakup

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Columnist / November 20, 2003

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More than a year and two girlfriends later, Robert, a high school senior in a western suburb, still wonders why his first girlfriend broke up with him.

"We were together four months," he says. "We saw each other every day. I was swept away by the emotions of it, of how important it was to me."

Marie, on the other hand, a senior at a Boston-area high school, knows exactly why she broke off with her boyfriend of nearly three years.

"He was cheating on me," she says, thumping the pink pages of her journal for emphasis. It's been six months, and she has another boyfriend. Still, tears fill her eyes. "He was everything to me."

The heartbreak of a teenage breakup is huge.

"High school breakups are harder than college," says adolescent psychiatrist Lynn Ponton of the University of California at San Francisco. Not only has the romance typically been a first love (as opposed to a middle school crush), but it's also the first experience ending a relationship.

"The pain is real, more intense than most parents realize," Ponton says, especially if the relationship lasted three months or more, the time it generally takes to reach a degree of emotional intimacy.

When any child is hurt, parents hurt with them; instinctively, we want to take the pain away. Unfortunately, when the child is a teenager and the cause of the hurt is a romance gone sour, that isn't necessarily wise.

Trying to cheer up your teen, saying things like, "Honey, you'll get over it," or, "I never liked her anyway," doesn't help.

"It minimizes the whole thing. It pushes him to justify the awful feeling he's having and maybe build the relationship up in his mind even more," says adolescent psychologist Mike Reira, also of San Francisco.

On the other hand, it's not an adult divorce. Go for the middle ground: Offer empathy ("It really hurts, I know; I'm so sorry."), and be available. Specifically, be home as much as you can.

"After a breakup, any teen, but a boy more than girl, is likely to be temporarily cut off from friends. He's going to be home more than usual. Even if he's in his room all the time, if you are home, too, he is alone but not lonely. If you're not home, he's alone and lonely," says Reira, author of "Staying Connected to Your Teenager" (Perseus).

Boys typically suffer more in the wake of a breakup than girls, especially when they are dumped.

Over the years, "a girl has given emotional pieces of herself here and there to girlfriends and she's felt the heartache of quarreling with girlfriends," says social psychologist Terri Apter of the University of Cambridge in England.

"For a boy, a first love is the first time he opens himself up emotionally. He feels vulnerable and exposed when it ends."

Indeed, school counsellors report that boys are more likely to get into trouble after a breakup because their mental health is precarious. Apter is author of "The Myth of Maturity, What Teenagers Need from Parents to Become Adults" (Norton).

"Here's how she broke up," says Robert. "She told me, `It's time to move on.' Why? I was so angry! I invested a lot of myself into that relationship. What was wrong with me that I couldn't keep her? I tried to change. I tried to mimic my best friend."

Seeing her at school was hard.

"I wanted to be friendly," Robert says, "but I ended up ignoring her because that's what she did to me."

Marie's boyfriend had graduated already so she didn't have to see him every day. That was good and bad.

"I felt so lonely without him! I cried for days," she says. "I went to school, but I couldn't pay attention. When I got my first F, I made myself stop thinking about him so much."

She likes her new boyfriend, but she loved her old one. When she thinks about him, which is often, she alternates between wondering why he didn't respect her and feeling guilty.

"Maybe it was wrong to break up with him after all he did for me," she says.

Marie is a Haitian immigrant. Her former boyfriend helped her navigate everything from term papers to T passes.

Although both dumper and dumpee may be cut off from friends and experience a sense of loss, the one who was dumped often goes through obsessive self-examination that can include demanding to know from the dumper what she or he did wrong. This is typically more intense for a girl, especially if her feelings weren't reciprocated.

"She feels as if she almost had what she wanted. There's a lot of, `If only I said this or did that,' " says clinical psychologist Roni Cohen-Sandler, author of "Trust me, mom - everyone else is going" (Penguin). Girls more than boys tend to harass the ex, calling and begging for one more chance, promising to change, or trying to make him jealous by behaving provocatively. Hashing it over and over with friends typically helps a girl move forward.

Boys who are dumped tend to be angry, puzzled, and hurt, in that order. "They may spend a lot of time in their room, listening to music. They avoid certain situations, like parties, where they know she will be. They feel awkward," says Cohen-Sandler. If they talk to friends, it's not to share feelings but to save face, typically by saying things about the girl that aren't true.

If parents get wind of any of this (often it will come from friends or overheard conversations, not from your child), it can be excruciating: How can he be so nasty? How can she be so needy? "Most of us are not proud of the way a teen handles a breakup, dumper or dumpee," says Reira.

This is not the time to rush in with advice, pass judgment, or insist on a conversation, however. Instead:

Put out invitations to talk. Reira is a fan of leaving notes ("Seems like something is going on with you and Cheryl. I'm around tonight if you want to talk.") or of showing up late at night when he's watching TV and offering openings: "It must feel funny to be hanging out with your buddies again. . ."

Show you care. Serve his favorite meal; leave a poem she'll like on her pillow.

Talk about your own experiences. Keep it short. "No more than three sentences," says Reira. "And don't hit them over the head with the moral of your story; they can figure it out themselves."

If he comes to you for advice, avoid direct questions, and don't ask for lots of details. Not, "What are you going to tell her?" but, "I bet you've thought of a way to do this that won't be too hurtful." If he's receptive to advice about how to break up, Cohen-Sandler says the single most important message to convey is that this is an opportunity to figure out what you do and don't want from future relationships.

Ponton, author of "The Romance of Risk" (Basic Books), says it can take four to six weeks before a teenager seems herself again. By then, extreme behavior of any kind is a red flag (a girl who isn't reconnecting with her friends, or who has thrown herself into another relationship; a boy who is out every night or home every night); consult with the school or a psychologist.

"When I told my mom we broke up, she gave me a hug," Robert says. "I liked that. She didn't make a huge production out of it, but she didn't blow it off. One day when I was moping around she said, `You're only 16. You have your whole life ahead of you.' That helped."

Marie finds herself a little tentative in her new relationship. "It takes a long time to really trust another boyfriend, especially if a boyfriend before him hurt you so much," she says.

Knowing who and how to trust, figuring out what qualities you like in a mate - these are among the life lessons teenagers are learning as they go in and out of romances. Here's one more:

"Since the girlfriend who broke up with me, I've broken up with two other girls," says Robert. "They both liked me more than I liked them, so I tried really hard to be nice. Especially since I know how much it can hurt, [but] I think I probably was a jerk anyway."

JUST BEING THERE CAN HELP

1 Generally speaking, the farther a couple went sexually, the harder the breakup will be felt. Just because a son or daughter is taking it hard, however, doesn't mean there was a great deal of sexual intimacy; it could just mean there was significant emotional closeness.

2 For teenagers with a history of abandonment (adoption, divorce, or death of a family member), a breakup can trigger unresolved feelings of grief that have nothing to do with the romance. Seek a consult with a psychologist.

3 If she's willing to have a conversation with you about the breakup, less is more. Teenager: ``I'm really having a hard time concentrating since we broke up.'' Parent: ``Yeah, I can understand why.'' That comes across as unconditional love. Almost anything else you might add to it won't.

4 The four most common reasons teenagers break up: (1) Someone else has caught his eye; (2) She's never dated anyone else and wants to experience other relationships before going to college; (3) It's the only way he knows to put brakes on the sex; (4) She's bored.

5 If you hear your teenager crying behind a closed door, it's generally better to stifle the urge to knock at that moment. Wait until later: ``I didn't want to intrude on your privacy before, but I heard you crying. Is there anything I can do to help?'' On the other hand, give yourself permission to trust your instincts. If you've never heard her cry so hard, she didn't go to school that day, or you're worried she might hurt herself, waiting could be folly.

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