young loveAs summer is getting into full swing, those teens who graduated from high school may be preparing to go off to college. For many of the teens I work with, moving means leaving behind friends, family, and a boyfriend or girlfriend. When I ask teens what they think will happen to the relationship, many tell me they aren’t sure. Often they are in their first serious relationship, one where their family and friends all know the significant other and much of the teen’s free time is spent with their partner. I ask them about what will happen to their relationship in order to get them to think a bit about the future, while enjoying the summer.

Long distance relationships are challenging. My husband and I spent 4 years living in separate cities as a dating couple while I completed medical training. We would have spent 5 years together, but the strain of trying to spend time together, stay in regular communication, and support each other was so great that we actually broke up during the final year. For teens going to college, they are about to experience independence from family for the first time. They’ll have to balance new responsibilities from school, work, finances, new friends, and having no curfew.  Continuing a long distance relationship on top of all of this is no small feat!

So what can a parent do to help support their teen in their efforts to manage a relationship?

If your teen decides to keep their relationship going:

  • First, encourage them to talk to their partner about expectations for the relationship. Will they remain exclusive? Will they be open to dating other people?
  • Your teen may want to have a conversation with their partner about what things would make them want to end the relationship. What are their boundaries for ending the relationship?
  • Try to have a plan to communicate. How often will they communicate with their partner? Will they Skype or use Facetime each week? What are their expectations about communication via phone/text? Is a facebook post sufficient communication?
  • Let your teen know that they should expect changes. Late adolescence and early adulthood is a natural time of change. People’s interests shift and priorities are restructured. Sometimes relationships grow closer and sometimes they grow farther apart.

If your teen decides to break up:

  • Encourage them to talk to their partner in person. Breaking up via text or instant message is rude (in my opinion) and so a face to face encounter shows they truly respect their partner.
  • Ask your teen to think about whether or not they want to remain friends. If they still have a friendship, will this induce jealousy? Anger? Resentment? or is the partner someone who has been a source of support that they want to continue to have in their life?

If someone breaks up with your teen to go to college:

  • Acknowledge how hard breaks ups are. Praise them for their resilience, but let them know it is absolutely ok to feel hurt, sad, anger, relief, and anything in between. The break up likely wasn’t anyone’s ‘fault’ (if it is solely due to distance) so be sure to let them know they didn’t do anything wrong.

Though these analogies probably won’t help in the moment, once your teen has started to recover from the emotions, let them know that there are ‘plenty of fish in the sea’ and ‘when one door closes, another opens.’ With 7 billion people on the planet, it’s very likely that there will be another person they connect with and care about. Encourage your teen to think of all the things they learned from the relationship: what they want or don’t want in a partner, how they want to be treated by a new partner. Explore friendships that may have been put on hold because they didn’t have time to connect when they were in a relationship. This may be an opportune time to focus on next steps for their education, vocation, career, volunteer work.

Remember that this is a big loss. If your teen begins to withdraw, becomes very sad to the point of not enjoying activities they previously relished, or goes the opposite direction and starts to engage in risky behaviors (drugs, alcohol, parties), or you’re just worried about their emotional state, take them in to see their medical provider. Sometimes life events happen that require a little help from a provider or counselor to get through and that’s ok too.

Do readers have advice on long distance relationships as teens go off to college?