It’s easy to dismiss it as a part of growing up. But having your heart broken for the first time can feel devastating. So what can you do to ease your child’s agony?
he’s run in crying and slammed her door. Behind it, you can hear her tearfully calling a friend to say her boyfriend’s ‘dumped’ her.
Days later, she won’t talk to you, won’t eat and refuses to emerge from her room.
The devastation of a first love breaking up can be hard to remember by the time we reach adulthood. We move on, meet someone new and usually manage to forget the pain.
But to a teenager, that pain can be immense. In some cases, a young person can be so devastated they may self-harm or even consider suicide.
In the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of young people under 35, according to the charity Papyrus, which is dedicated to preventing young suicide. In 2015, 1659 young people took their own lives.
So if your child has suffered a break-up and doesn’t seem to be coping, how can you help? And when should you worry?
Kelly Thorpe, manager of HOPELineUK, the helpline of Papyrus, says that she has seen a rise in the number of young people contacting them for this reason.
‘As adults, we can forget how devastating it can be when a first love ends,’ she says. ‘We’ve certainly seen an increase and it’s a common theme. We’ve particularly seen an increase in young males struggling with relationship breakdowns.’
Kelly says that feelings of sadness, despair and hopelessness can indeed be ‘normal’ when a break-up happens.
But, she adds, one worry is that for some young people, those feelings can go on for longer and that self-harm or even suicide may seem like an option or way out.
‘Young people don’t all have the opportunity to talk their feelings through,’ she says. ‘Peers may not understand and they can sometimes feel unable to approach adults. Parents might say: “You’ll get over it” but a break-up can be devastating.’
Kelly adds that social media can make break-ups feel worse. In the past, if a boyfriend or girlfriend dumped you, you’d return home and think it over or talk to family. Now, she says, there’s ‘no safe haven and no escape’.
She continues: ‘Also, on social media there’s a feeling that everyone and their dog is involved in a break-up, rather than it being between two people.’
So if sadness is normal, how can a parent know when things are seriously wrong?
Kelly says the key is to look out for a change in behaviour.
‘If they withdraw severely and were previously outgoing, that’s a sign,’ she says. ‘Likewise, if they begin to self-harm.’
Can a parent help if a teenager seems engulfed in sadness?
‘Yes,’ Kelly argues. ‘First of all, offer a safe space where they can talk if they want to. If they won’t talk, write a letter so it gives them time to respond when they feel ready. Don’t say: “You’ll get over it.” Instead say things like: “I’m hearing that you’re finding this hard but I want you to know I am here, and how can I help?” The main thing is to keep talking.’
If your child is taking heartbreak particularly badly, and they won’t talk, what can you do?
‘If you’re concerned, call a helpline such as HOPELineUK, as we can advise parents on how to help their child,’ Kelly says. ‘Be mindful that in some cases suicide can become an extreme option for some young people as they can feel there’s no way to escape their feelings.
‘But if parents are able to offer a safe haven, they can learn to spot signs and it can give them an understanding of how bad their child is feeling.’
Edited by Julie Cook
If you are worried about your child, call HOPELineUK on 0800 068 41 41 or visit papyrus-uk.org
‘I felt my life was over’
I was 15 when I met my first proper boyfriend and we became serious.
We stayed together for two years. Then when I was 17, I spotted him with another girl.
I confronted my boyfriend but he denied it. Days later I saw him with her again. I felt devastated.
We broke up. Afterwards I was so upset I could barely leave my room.
I stopped going to college and seeing friends.
I was really close to my mum but felt I couldn’t confide in her because I wasn’t able to explain how bad I felt.
It was so painful I couldn’t find the words. I felt my life was over.
After weeks of not going out, I began to see friends again. I finally managed to talk to my mum about how bad I felt and she listened and supported me. She understood how upsetting it was.
Now, a year on, I still find it painful and feel I can’t trust anyone.
Some older people think teenage heartbreak is silly and something you get over quickly. But it can be devastating and change your whole life.
I hope one day I can trust enough again to meet someone. But now, it is still too raw.
From Samantha Jennings, 18, of Wakefield, W Yorks