By Rachel Hynes.
It was more than 25 years ago but I remember the moment clearly, despite forgetting so many other things between then and now. It was evening, I was lying down on my bed. My face hurt from hours of crying, my body was doing those shuddering breaths caused by a bout of inconsolable grief, and my chest ached because my heart was, quite simply, broken. It was my first relationship break-up.
My mother was kneeling beside my bed, at a loss as to what to say. She rubbed my back and gently said, “It’s ok, there are plenty more fish in the sea”. (Note to parents: this is the wrong thing to say to a heartbroken teenager when the pain is still so fresh.)
“A relationship break-up can be worse for teenagers than for adults”
If you didn’t experience a teenage relationship break-up, or if the years since then have muddied the memory, researchers are here to remind us that it’s very, very painful.
According to a study undertaken by the Australian National University with the American and Texas psychological associations, teen love is usually infatuation, which is a more consuming emotion than love. A relationship break-up can be worse for teenagers than for adults.
The combination of a developing brain, surging hormones and a lack of identity leads to adolescents “merging”, so that they feel not quite whole when apart.
Mum Jules Seet experienced the pain of a teenage relationship break-up last year when her son, then 17, broke up with his first love. He had been in a two year “fairytale relationship” which had turned to talk of marriage and children. But then it ended suddenly, and he “fell hard”, Jules says. She wrote of her son’s “incredible deep painful agony” in her blog The Bumpiest Path.
“A developing brain, surging hormones and a lack of identity leads to adolescents ‘merging’, so that they feel not quite whole when apart”
University of Canberra clinical psychologist Dr Vivienne Lewis, who specialises in treating teens, told Fairfax news that it was not uncommon for adolescents to be referred to her practice with severe depression, after the end of even short relationships.
She said that because teenagers are not used to the experience they can be completely crushed by a relationship break-up, whereas adults have usually been through a few relationships so they are more careful.
Advice for parents
Dr Lewis told Fairfax that parents need to understand how devastating a break-up can be for their teenager, as the relationship may have been “their whole life”, even if only for a month.
Parents with teenagers in relationships are advised to help their children stay engaged with other things – family, sport and school, for example – to prevent the relationship from becoming all-consuming.
“It’s when it becomes the sole part of their life that it becomes dangerous”
“It’s when it becomes the sole part of their life that it becomes dangerous and when it breaks down could lead to mental-health issues,” said Dr Lewis.
After her teenager’s relationship ended, Jules says: “We stepped in, picked him up, dusted off his knees and hands and sent him on his way. But not without shedding our own tears for his hurt.”
Her words of advice for parents counselling a heartbroken teenager?
“When they are ready to talk, then you be ready to listen. Don’t say ‘I told you so’. Take it day by day, step by step. Each teenager is different some will recover fast, others not so fast. Be guided by your teenager’s readiness to move on and recognise it’s all very real to them.”
Did you remember how painful it was to break-up as a teenager? Have you been through it as a parent of a teenager? What advice would you give?