The life of a typical adolescent may often combine difficulties and complexities. Adolescents are often faced with issues related to peer pressure, academic stress, and potential family difficulties. Friendships and relationships often serve as outlets for adolescents during times of difficulty and turmoil. Relationships and feeling connected to others also impacts personal feelings of identity and self worth. This article attempts to provide guidance in understanding how adolescents will often deal with terminated relationships. Understanding the underlying dynamics is important for determining the normalcy of reactions and the specific emotions and feelings that occur when relationships are terminated.
During the period of adolescence, the primacy of peer relationships relates to the formation of identity. As Erik Erikson suggests, the formation of identity is the designated task of the period of adolescence. The ability to form connections strengthens individual identity and prevents a person from feeling isolated. Therefore, the termination of a strong friendship or relationship could potentially produce a ‘grief related reaction’. Similar to the stages of grief and loss suggested by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a teenager will often move through stages of anger, sadness, helplessness, bargaining, and acceptance when dealing with a terminated relationship. The loss of a critical friendship and relationship is at times seen as related to the loss of a person’s own individual identity.
This may explain the level of reactions experienced by teenagers. At times, teenagers will put up a mask or a shield around their feelings. This shield can either be manifested as withdrawal or even as intense anger. The specific reaction may be based on the specific relationship and the specific coping abilities of the parties involved. Withdrawal, while it is may be certainly rooted in anger or sadness, does not necessarily imply that the teenager is heading on the road toward a depressive episode. However, it is important to help the teenager understand the thoughts and feelings associated with each particular reaction. Some common negative thoughts may relate to feelings of vulnerability and distrust from the breakup of a strong relationship. Teenagers may question their ability to trust or love, and may try to bargain with themselves that they wish that things could be different. It is not uncommon for a teenager to feel that ‘things will never be the same’.
Beyond Erikson’s theory of identity, there are additional ‘Theories of Energy’ that suggest that part of our energy, or our ego development, relates to feeling connected to other people. These theories maintain that a person relies on the energy of other people to enhance their own identity and self. A lack of feeling connected (or feeling this energy from other people) may create symptoms of withdrawal, isolation, anger, and sadness. It is important to help teenagers recognize the inherent dynamics that are prevalent in a terminated relationship before symptoms become exacerbated.
In order to promote healing and growth, I would like to suggest some helpful tips when speaking to teenagers who are experiencing changes and volatility in their relationships:
1) It is important to help teenagers understand their reactions and feelings. As mentioned, the severity and intensity of reactions may be ‘more normal’ for this specific time period in their life. Helping them to understand this may be a beginning step for growth and healing
2) Helping teenagers to identity healthy coping skills are critical in attempting to counteract feelings of isolation and hopelessness. Promoting connection over withdrawal will allow individuals to maintain their specific energy levels as they navigate through some difficult times
3) While often difficult, feelings of vulnerability and distrust can often be channeled to new experiences and new relationships. Helping teenagers to learn from the past can often promote feelings of hope and optimism related to the formation of new friendships and relationships.
Noticing changes of behavior can often be the first step to engaging your teenagers in meaningful discussions about social changes and difficulties. One should never hesitate to seek outside guidance and counsel when looking to help their teenage children navigate difficult ‘social waters’.
Mark Staum, LCSW, is a social worker at The Frisch School in Paramus, NJ. He works with hundreds of teenagers and parents on many issues specifically related to the period of adolescence. Mark is a former therapist at The Center for Applied Psychology in Monsey, NY, and presently maintains a private practice in Monsey, NY and Teaneck, NJ. Mark has trained at The Ackerman Institute for The Family and has additional training in child and family therapy. To learn more about Mark, please visit his website, www.markstaum.com. For any questions or comments on this article, please contact Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org