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Ask the Expert: How Can I Help My Son Cope with a Breakup?

Dear Your Teen:

My son just experienced his first serious relationship. She broke up with him stating, “I have lost feelings for you.” They are both starting college in the fall; yes, to the same school. He is so crushed. And his dream school has suddenly lost all its luster. After his breakup, he isn’t sure this is the best fit for him anymore. Help!

EXPERT | Alex Hamlet, Psy.D.

1. Validate his feelings.

I think the first key here is the word validation. To validate someone’s experience means to recognize the difficult emotions they may be feeling, and show that you empathize with them. For example, I validate you for potentially feeling helpless and sad for your son, and perhaps even anxious for the fall. I think passing along the validation to your son could be a great first step.

Often when we care about someone and want to take away their pain, we rush to problem solving too quickly. Before trying to solving the issue at hand, I recommend acknowledging his pain and telling him that you are here for him. Heartbreak is a universal experience. What is a plus here is that you might have experienced heartbreak yourself before, so your awareness of how difficult it is will likely create a sense of relief for him right off the bat.

In the validation process, stick to focusing on your son’s feelings rather than on the ex. In addition to falling into the trap of problem solving, parents and friends can often go too far throwing an “ex bash”. I can’t tell you how many times my mom used to tell me what a loser my ex was, only to regret it months later when we got back together.

An example of how validation might sound without bashing or problem solving could be something like, “It sounds like you’re in a lot of pain right now. I’m sorry you’re going through this. Getting through a breakup is really difficult!” In contrast, a statement to avoid might be, “I’m sorry, but there are many fish in the sea. You’re going to college. You will find someone else! I thought she was pretty selfish anyway.”

As true as it might be, the last thing that your son wants to hear in the beginning stages of a high school breakup is that he should work to move on. In time he will figure out when moving on is right for him.

2. Find healthy distractions.

Another great thing you can do is help to find healthy distractions for your son to get him through the heartbreak in the short term. Make sure he is hanging out with positive peer supports. Even take him out to lunch or do some activity that you know normally lifts his spirits. Try to fully engage in whatever activity you choose.

Avoid talking too much about the breakup—take his lead on whether to discuss it. If he brings it up, consider it fair game. If he starts to dwell, try and change the subject. Distractions will reduce his emotional suffering. Even if you can’t take his pain away, you can help reduce suffering.

3. Monitor his mood.

Once you get started with aiding in healthy distractions and validation, monitor his mood and willingness to talk about school in the fall. If he brings college up early in this process, and you still have time before school begins, I would validate his concerns for starting school. At the same time, add that there will be time for problem solving later. First, let’s work towards lifting some of the pain from the breakup. Then I would use a distraction tactic to lift his mood.

4. Talk about college (when he’s ready).

Over time, you will start to notice when it is more appropriate to engage in more depth with his questions about starting college in the fall. And you might even begin to bring it up as a way of preparing him for what’s to come. When it is time to chat about college, remind him that even if he was still with his girlfriend, this would be a time of transition. His goal would be to make new friends, get adjusted, and settle into classes and activities that make him happy. If he can focus on taking care of himself at school, he will find an easing of emotional pain and an increase in happiness.

I hope this helps give you some ideas how to help your son through a high school breakup. As we all know, there is no shortcut to getting through a breakup. But with these skills, you will model to your son that while girls may come and go, he will always have your support. And even in college, you are a quick call or text away!

Dr. Alex Hamlet, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist in the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. She specializes in the evaluation and treatment of mood and anxiety disorders. She is also an adjunct professor in the psychology department at St. John’s University.

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