Here is January’s installment of “Ask Shelby” from Chester County’s own licensed marriage and family therapist, Shelby Riley.
My teenage daughter is distraught over a break up. She keeps looking at his Facebook and Instagram feeds and feels terrible when she sees pictures of him having fun or at parties with other girls. I tell her to just forget about him, but she just gets mad at me and tells me I don’t understand. How can I help her? I hate to see her so upset, and I worry her grades and other friendships are suffering.
Signed, Worried Mama
Dear Worried Mama,
Watching your daughter in pain can be so hard! My first thought is: make sure you give her space to feel this, and don’t let your pain be a motivator for getting her to move on quickly. She needs a mom who can soothe her own mommy-pain and be a strong, loving, calm resource for her while she is in break-up pain.
Letting go of past relationships can be difficult. Taking some time to mourn the loss of the relationship and the future your daughter pictured with her boyfriend is important. I suggest encouraging her to set aside 20 minutes twice a day to sit quietly with her memories, thoughts and feelings and let herself really be present for whatever comes up. If she’d like you there to cry to, that is wonderful, but let her be alone if she wants to be alone. I like to think of this twenty-minute time like receiving a closed box from a small child. We would carefully open the lid and slowly look through everything inside, piece by piece, commenting to the child on what we see in a loving and curious tone. Encourage her to do the same with each of those 20 minutes. “Oh, the time we kayaked on the lake….that was such a beautiful day….it feels so sad to think about how happy we were….it hurts so bad right now.” If she needs to cry, have her cry. If she needs to yell, let her yell. If she wants to write in a journal, encourage her to write. Allow her to express her feelings, and if she wants you there, sit quietly, holding her, gently rubbing her back and saying little things like, “Yes, I know it hurts.” She needs you to be a container, not a problem solver. Gently soothe, but don’t try to get her pain to stop. She needs to have space to feel what she feels. When the 20 minutes is up, have a way to transition from the mourning time back into daily life. A bath, shower, walk, cup of tea, listening to music, and reading are some ideas I have seen help people transition.
Now, encourage her to spend the other 23 hours and 20 minutes of her day living the life she wants to live. If she focuses on the break-up at other times, she is missing out on time to create the life she wants. Texting her ex, looking at his FB page, etc., only keeps her stuck living in the past. What we feed, grows. Help her feed a healthy reality. Encourage her to hang out with the family and her friends, engaging in fun things that she likes to do. When those ex-related thoughts creep in, have her remind herself she has a 20 minute mourning session coming up soon, so she can ask those thoughts and feelings to wait. She should spend the 20 minute mourning times exploring her reaction to the old relationship, not creating new memories by acting out impulses like calling, texting, or FB stalking….that will only increase the pain and create more experiences to mourn later. After a few days or weeks, try having only one 20 minute session a day. Then take it to 10 minutes. Soon, she will find she no longer needs to mourn the relationship. She will be ready to simply live the life she has created, and any memories of her ex will be only that, memories, without all of the pain attached.
If after a few weeks to a month your daughter still isn’t coping well, you can always ask her if she’d like to talk with a therapist about her feelings. Sometimes no matter how great Mom’s advice is, having an objective, professional non-family member to talk to can be helpful. I can tell you love your daughter very much. She is lucky to have you,
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.