First love and that first heartbreak – helping kids handle rejection

We have all likely experienced the agony of a broken heart and all found ourselves asking “why does it hurt so much?”  Humans are predominantly social creatures.  Even the most introverted among us can still crave intimate connection.  Our survival depends on being part of a group so it is not surprising that when we feel like we are excluded, rejected or someone is no longer a friend, we get strong signals in our body that can be quite alarming.

As infants and throughout our upbringing, we humans depend on secure relationships to meet, at first our basic need for food, warmth and shelter and, later, our more complex social, emotional needs.  It is well known that healthy parenting plays a part in developing adjustment.  Kids with a secure base from which to explore the world and explore other relationships are generally better adjusted than those without that secure base.

As we grow, we seek more intimate connections with others and, by the time we are well into our teens, we are seeking intimate relationships with what we hope might be a long time relationship.    Indeed many years ago, theorist Eric Erickson defined the teen years as those where the major developmental tasks is identity and then following that, intimacy.  It’s important that we work out who we are and what is important to us and then find connection.

It is perhaps a cruel twist of fate that adolescence is the time when we start to seek intimacy and also the time of our most strongly felt emotions.

It is very typical for teens to seek out the sweetest sweets, the dizziest risks and the most dramatic dramas.  Their brains and endocrines systems demand it.  I had heard that this drive to find more satisfaction is perhaps what eventually makes teens leave home and mix up the gene pool so we don’t get too inter-bred.

Biologically wired to find a mate, the teen is pre-programmed to seek out an intimate partner and to seek more adventure or take risks.  Feelings are strongly felt.  Love is dizzy and rejection is crushing.  One just has to review popular musical lyrics across generations to know that heartache and heartbreak are not new phenomena. Search for connection and dealing with rejections have long driven much human behaviour.

When you understand the biology and psychology of adolescence, it is clear that it is just cruel to dismiss the emotions of a heart-broken teen.

Indeed, it is actually problematic to not support young people through heart break – especially those teens who are rejection sensitive.

Researchers are telling us that some young people are more sensitive to rejection than others.  We don’t yet know why this might be.  Perhaps it’s linked to very early life events or even to individual temperament or as we get more aware about the influence of epigenetics. However, we know that those young people who are rejections sensitive are more prone to mental health concerns including depression and anxiety.  Some are more prone to get angry and some are prone to become more anxious.  The same researchers have learned that the association between rejection sensitivity and mental health concerns is affected by friends and family.  Outcomes are better when friends and family are supportive.

We need to help young people bounce back from romantic rejection and to help them know how to help each other when a friend’s heart is broken.

So, what to do?  Here are some tips….

  • Allow the person time to experience and feel the emotions.  While there are many feelings we don’t like to have, feelings always make sense and we often end up in bigger messes when we try not to feel something rather than just let the feeling come (This is probably why I so love the movie “Inside Out”).
  • Be sure the person has healthy means available to soothe themselves – some may need to talk about it repeatedly for what feels like forever, some might want to hide in bed (don’t let this go on for too long and try to encourage exposure to daylight), they may want to watch sad movies with you, listen to sad songs, go for long walks or if they are angry, encourage some vigorous exercise and some pillow punching.  While it may feel like the Aussie way, don’t offer alcohol.  Offer company – the “be with you” type not the “demand things of you” type.
  • When the time is right (when they can talk about it without running off or shutting down), offer the chance to discuss the relationship and what they may have learned from it about themselves and about others and what they might take into the future.  Discourage revenge or stalking ideas. Encourage paying some attention to the things that are important to them in life or that they may be good at or that make them feel good.

Shona’s golden rule is “don’t make yourself feel better by making someone else feel worse – make yourself feel better by doing better things for you or others”

  • Get practical, too.  Help them handle the likelihood of bumping into this person and come up with a little plan or even some personal growth challenges when this occurs.  Make sure that you include a plan to manage bumping into them on social media, too.
  • If you think that they are at risk of doing something dangerous or if you think the heartbreak is taking too long to begin to repair, assist the person to access some professional help.  If they ever threaten to hurt themselves, even if it is a message you get on social media in the middle of the night, be sure to contact someone who can actually keep them safe right then and there (a parent or even an ambulance).  A psychologist can get to know them, understand why things might be taking longer and help them take steps to adjust.
  • Try to avoid avoidance.  Keep an eye on them to make sure that they are not avoiding future relationships.

The joy of a healthy, loving and long-term relationship with ourselves, another or a community is well worth some practice runs along the way.

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