August 21, 2017


Teenage heartbreak doesn’t just hurt, it can kill

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noah silliman.
(Unsplash/Noah Silliman)

Most adults recall the breakup of a romantic relationship as the most traumatic event of their youth. Research shows that breakups are the leading cause of psychological distress and a major cause of suicide among young people.

So why do we deem them trivial at worst, character-building at best?

My husband, who is the Director of the Counselling Services at the University of New Brunswick, noted that many students came to counselling presenting with a mental health issue relating to a breakup. As a researcher of intimate relationships among young people, I started working with him to track how many.

It turns out breakups were implicated in 28 per cent of the cases seen over four months. We applied time and time again for federal funding to study this topic, but got absolutely nowhere. The reviewers’ comments suggested that this topic lacked sufficient gravitas and was not compelling in light of more serious problems facing youth.

Suicide and substance use

Romantic relationships are common among adolescents and, because of their shortened duration, relationship breakups are also common. A study of 15- to 18-year-old Canadian teens found that 23 per cent had experienced a breakup in the prior six months. Common experiences, for sure, but not to be dismissed.

Research prioritizes adult relationship breakups.
(Unsplash/Milada Vigerova), CC BY

Breakups are believed to be the No. 1 cause of suicides among young people. What could be more serious as a mental health issue?

In one study, 40 per cent experienced clinical depression following a romantic relationship dissolution; another 12 per cent reported moderate to severe depression.

Other adverse symptoms include sleeplessness, substance use, self-harm and intrusive thoughts. Romantic dissolution has strong physiological effects too: Recent fMRI research indicates that relationship loss shows activation and biochemical reactions similar to those experiencing drug withdrawal.

Time and again, we encountered beliefs that by virtue of being common experiences for youth, they were unimportant. Or, in another twist of logic, because most of us had to endure such breakups in our youth, all could be endured.

Adolescent breakups can be just as devastating as those of adults, if not more so.
(Unsplash/William Stitt), CC BY

We know little about young people’s adjustment over time; we assume that the pain diminishes and they learn from experience. But do they? We think that this type of pain is an unavoidable outcome required for learning and refining relationship skills that allow us to find our “forever partner.” But is it?

Some breakups are so bad the negative outcomes adversely affect a person’s personal, social and academic functioning, and may in fact adversely affect the skills and competency required in their subsequent intimate relationships.

Wondering why your teen might be holed up in their room refusing to come out for days at a time? Or isn’t finding pleasure in the things that they used to enjoy? It might be breakup-related.

Research biases

What’s surprising to me as a researcher of intimate relationships among young people is how little research attention this topic has received. I believe the lack of research likely reflects long-standing biases that minimize or dismiss the stresses young people experience.

Like most topics that affect adults, there are thousands of studies addressing the extreme psychological aftermath of divorce and separation. The consequences of the dissolution of an adult relationship may be widespread and severe, especially when children are involved. As with adults, not all breakups among young people are difficult, but when they are, they can be equally devastating. Often they are more devastating, because there is much less concern and fewer supports designed to help adolescents regain footing.

Given that the average ages in Canada for a first marriage are now 29.1 for women and 31.1 for men, young people will spend much of their second and third decades of life in non-marital relationships. Because of these changing demographics, acquiring competence in the romantic domain is now considered a key developmental task entering adulthood. This requires significant gains in interpersonal skills for emotional and sexual intimacy, emotional regulation and communication.

We don’t know if young people develop patterns of adjustment that improve, persist or worsen after a breakup. But some research is emerging at long last.

We tracked 148 young people (aged 17 to 23 years) who had recently broken up. Higher frequency of intrusive thoughts about the breakup predicted greater distress over time, even after accounting for relationship characteristics, such as who initiated the breakup and the passage of time since breakup. However, of interest here, higher levels of deliberate reflection about how things went wrong, and what one would do differently, was related to positive growth at later assessments.

The ConversationSo it’s true, not all breakups are bad — some adolescents are left in a better place afterwards. But we need to do better at giving credence to this difficult rite of passage.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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  • As an adult it’s easy to forget the utter heart break felt when younger. Adults need to try and respect the teenagers need to grieve the end of their relationship and support them through it.


  • I’ve long thought that we need to help kds by discussing relationship skills at school as well as at home.


  • everything is so intense when you are a teenager so no wonder this is a big deal. Teenagers should be taught coping skills to help deal with these inevitable situations that they will go through


  • First love and break up can be devastating at the time and looking back, it often seems as though nothing will equate to that ever again. Thanks for an exceptionally good article.


  • teenage years seem to expose us so much more to our emotions, seem to have less control or everything we feel is amplified. I try to remember how i felt growing up, hopefully this will help how i perform as a parent.


  • Maybe If somebody could explain the difference between Anxiety Depression and Clinical Depression it would be of great benefit to many. I doubt if many that young are emotionally mature enough to form a relationship that doesn’t end in heartbreak either then or a little later.


  • Hope they don’t give up trying to get funding


  • I also think the effect of heartbreak in teenage years can be so severe because they’re hormonally and emotionally not balanced yet and still need to mature and develop.


  • the break up with your first love is often the hardest thing a person has to do or be on the receiving end off – it hurts for a long time, until life eventually fills you up with so much more love, loss etc. The first one will always tug your heartstrings – a simple smell, song or sound can trigger a rush of memories and you relive it all over again!


  • Teen heart break can be at the time the worst time of your life.


  • I would totally believe this. I’ve never loved anyone as completely as I loved my first boyfriend. I held nothing back for that boy and I’ve never recovered from that heartbreak.


  • How very interesting …I do hope they look into this more and do more studies world wide.


  • Being a teenager can be tough for sure and relationship break ups can indeed cause so many problems and issues. It would be interesting to see some Australian research and statistics on this issue.


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