Protecting Children From Relationship Obsession

"I'm limiting social media use to stop my child from obsessing. Is that okay?"

Posted Sep 19, 2018

Dear Dr. G.,

I have been extremely worried about my 17 year old high school senior daughter. Her boyfriend (John) of 6 months went away to college a few weeks ago and her worst fear came true. He broke up with her abruptly and said that it was too hard to maintain a long distance relationship. I understand that this young man wants to have a full college experience but I am concerned about my daughter because her pain is my pain. Because I was so concerned about my daughter's obsession with this boy since he broke up with her, I insisted that she limit her social media contact with him. As far as I know, she hasn't reversed any of the social media changes that I insist she make. Nonetheless, I want to make sure that I did the right thing by her. I would very much like your input about what I had my daughter do.

My daughter was looking at her phone constantly after John broke up with her. She was waiting and waiting and obsessing about getting texts from him. He sent 2 texts after he broke up with her and just said hi. She then obsessed about what his one word texts meant. I thought that this was an unhealthy obsession and certainly a waste of her time. I spoke with my husband and we both agreed that my daughter would benefit from blocking John so that he would be unable to text her. My daughter reluctantly followed our advice and we sat with our daughter while she cut off texting communication with him. She blocked him. That seemed to help a bit. However, after that, my daughter started checking her ex-boyfriend's Instagram and Facebook pictures in an effort to see whose pictures he was liking in order to figure out who he might be replacing her with. My husband and I conferred again. We both agreed that this behavior was feeding and maintaining our daughter's obsession with John. We didn't think that there was any positive side to her viewing his Facebook and Instagram behavior. We had our daughter unfollow John on Instagram and unfriend him on Facebook. Although, she was a bit resistant, she followed through because her therapist agreed that this was a good idea. My daughter started seeing a therapist last year at the beginning of 11th grade for anxiety issues. She likes and respects the therapist. Moving forward, I would like to know if you agree with our decision to limit our daughter's social media use and what else we can do to help our daughter get over this boy. Everything seems to remind her of him.

A Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

I applaud your efforts to help your teenage daughter. Breaking up is so hard for teens these days because of their continuous access via social media to visual images and other information about their exes. Breaking up was difficult before couples had access to social media. I worry so much about our teens who not only have to contend with breakups but also with the undeveloped teen brain and social media. This is such a tough group of issues to deal with simultaneously. 

It sounds like your daughter took the breakup with the boyfriend very hard.  This makes sense to me. The teen brain is very sensitive to issues of acceptance and rejection. As the brain develops into adulthood it is better equipped to deal with issues of rejection and acceptance. It also sounds like your daughter had anxiety issues prior to the breakup. It is very likely that the breakup exacerbated her anxiety issues. It is wonderful that your daughter has a therapist who can help her work on these issues.

Limiting your daughter's access to social media was probably not easy but was an excellent idea. It is unlikely that your daughter would have done that on her own. The teen brain is very susceptible to addiction and as you know social media can become quite addicting particularly when teens are seeking out information about situations that are both confusing and important to them. I hope that your daughter's craving for tracking her ex-boyfriend has settled down a bit since you had her limit her social media use to the best of your ability. Keep in mind, of course, that she may be able to access her ex- boyfriend via text, Instagram and even Facebook by using her friends' social media devices. Less access is certainly better than more in any case.

Let me explain in a little more detail why it was important that you intervened and helped your daughter limit her social media access. The frontal cortex of the adolescent brain is not fully developed. That is the part of the brain that helps with good decision-making. You basically acted as your daughter's frontal cortex by helping her make some good decisions.

Moving forward, please be patient with your daughter. It is never easy to deal with a breakup especially when you haven't initiated it. Time, of course, should help. Additionally, distractions are extremely helpful. Talk to your daughter about keeping herself busy with activities and friends. I hope that she develops some effective coping strategies while working with her therapist. These coping strategies should serve her well in all aspects of her life. Please be patient with your self as well. I know that you would probably absorb your daughter's pain if you could but that is neither helpful, possible or necessary. Just keeping being attentive and nurturing.

Good luck and keep me posted.

Dr.G.