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The relationship roller coaster

Jennifer See


Your first-year college student has been in a long-term relationship with their high school sweetheart. The walls of their dorm room are plastered with a montage of pictures from homecomings, parties, prom and graduation as a couple. The two of them have been in pretty much constant contact since they started at their different colleges.

Then you get a phone call. Out of nowhere (to them, to you), the relationship is “on a break.”

Or maybe your student has fallen out with a close friend, and now their “bestie” since middle school has blocked them on social media.

While many long-distance relationships and friendships survive — and even thrive and deepen — after high school, not all make it. The transition from high school to college is a big one. Away from home for the first time, students are immersed in new experiences and freedoms, and they spend more time with their new friends than they ever did with the old high school group. Breakups happen and friendships can shift or come to a screeching halt.

Regardless of the circumstances, breakups are painful, but throw in being in a new environment far from the familiarity and comfort of home, and your student could have a tough time handling the loss.

Whether you’re a first-time or seasoned college parent, here are tips for how to support your student through the demise of any relationship, romantic or otherwise.

Be there.

They will probably want to talk, text and video chat more frequently during this time. Show your support by simply being there and listening. Your student needs to process the event. If they go silent after they’ve told you the news, be sure to reach out to them with periodic check-ins.

If your student attends school within driving distance, they might want to come home more frequently. How often is too often? There’s no right or wrong answer, but you do want to encourage them to continue with their normal college schedule of attending class and engaging with others.

Take the struggle seriously.

While we all know that the chance of a high school relationship going the distance are slim, your student most likely believed the relationship would be there for them long-term. The worst thing to do is minimize the importance of the breakup. They are grieving a loss; their pain is real. Even if it’s true, this isn’t the time to say “they’ll find someone else,” or to observe that their significant other wasn’t really right for them. This will not be comforting.

Breakups are always painful, but throw in being in a new environment far from the familiarity and comfort of home, and your student could have a tough time handling the loss.

Be alert.

The end of any relationship is a traumatic event, and potentially your student’s first experience with feeling rejected. Whether the breakup was their choice or not, watch and listen for behavioral changes:

  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Loss of appetite/weight loss
  • Self-medicating with food/weight gain
  • Isolating themselves from friends
  • Skipping class and staying in their dorm

Any of these could be signs that your student is depressed. Encourage them to seek professional help immediately — there are people they can talk to at the campus counseling center.

Encourage healthy coping mechanisms.

College students are at high risk for substance experimentation. In a recent national survey on drug use and health conducted by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 57 percent of full-time college students ages 18–22 drank alcohol in the previous month and 38 percent engaged in binge drinking. Throw in a traumatic and life-changing event such as a breakup, and that risk grows exponentially.

Your student might not be familiar with the concept of “self-medication.” It’s something many of us do, and it’s important to recognize when we’re doing it. Help them see the connection between how they feel and what they do, and apply healthy coping mechanisms, such as exercise and listening to music, instead of getting drunk or high.

Help them reflect on their own growth.

Life after high school is different for everyone. Some students embrace the challenges of managing newfound independence away from parental supervision while others stumble a bit. We all grow up in our own way, at our own pace. During this period of profound change, your student will need to recognize that some of the relationships that worked for them in high school might not evolve now that they no longer share common ground.

Affirm that time does help and heal.

Your student may be devastated thinking about what their altered future looks like without their significant other or best friend. Encourage them to focus on getting through each day and to not dwell on the past. (They may or may not be interested in/comforted by stories of what you went through in some of your old relationships; you can wait for them to ask you about this.)

Praise them for daily “wins” of keeping it together, and remind them that while they feel bad today, they won’t feel this bad forever — and they will come out on the other side.

Be sure to also read:
Jennifer See, LPC, LCDC is a clinician in private practice in San Antonio, Texas. She sees individuals ages 10 and up and focuses on mental health and substance use and abuse issues. Jennifer is also the parent of two college students. Visit her website at www.jennifersee.com and connect on social @jenniferseelpc.

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