Experiencing the break up of a significant relationship can be a very intense and stressful experience for teenagers. Each teen will have his or her own way of managing this stress. Some cry. Some get angry and yell. Some talk to friends and family. Others mask their anger or sadness by acting like they don’t care or by hibernating in their rooms. Still others may run for the next guy or girl, to risky behavior, or to substances to soften the blow to their self-esteem or sense of loss.
However, teens who fall in love and then go through a break up (or multiple break ups and make ups), share at least one similarity – they are hurting and trying to deal with a lot of emotion. This pain can sometimes lead them to make up just as suddenly and surprisingly as they broke up.
While teens begin to look like adults and even act adult-like at times, cognitively and emotionally, they are not adults. Recent brain research has identified that the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that helps regulate emotions and impulses and is involved in decision-making, is still developing during adolescence and into the early twenties. In addition, many teenagers have not had the life experience that reassures someone that life will go on and a person can get through tough life situations and losses.
What does this mean? Teens have a harder time making decisions when emotions are high and are more likely to be impulsive than adults. Some teens make it through breakups and other stressful situations with only a few hiccups in coping, while others really struggle. Many teens that are typically well-adjusted have difficulty after a break up, particularly if it is the ending of a major friendship or romantic relationship. If your teen is already struggling emotionally or socially, a break up can be the tipping point to emotional overdrive.
In 2002, Cheryl Peresie published a study on the characteristics associated with depression following romantic breakups in high schoolers. Seventy-two students from a Midwestern high school, who had experienced a break up with a romantic partner, participated in her study. Peresie found that teenagers reporting weak beliefs in their ability to cope with negative emotions, low self-concepts, strong beliefs in their uniqueness, and many daily hassles experienced the greatest amount of depression. Females scored higher for depression than males. Also of note, 45% of participants reported current depressive levels in need of further screening, and 25% of adolescents in the study had current mood scores in the “clinically depressed” range.
These results support the importance of taking your teen’s break up seriously. It may be that all he or she needs is a good listening to and a little validation. Talking with your teen about coping strategies (listening to music, talking to friends, working out, etc.) and the importance of taking a breather before making big decisions can also be helpful. If you notice that your teen seems to get a little more hopeful and a little less overwhelmed after a few days, he or she is likely headed for recovery.
However, if your teen seems to be getting more and more irritable, depressed, or anxious; stops functioning at school or in other areas of his or her life; stops communicating with others; or expresses thoughts about harming him or herself or others, seek the support of a psychologist or counselor.