It can be difficult to appreciate the impact that a romantic relationship can have on a young person's life.
Given that they are sometimes short-lived and seemingly unstable, adolescents' romantic relationships are often dismissed as 'puppy love', unimportant or failed to be taken seriously.
It has become increasingly clear that young people's romantic relationships warrant much more attention than they have traditionally been given. They play an important role in young people's day-to-day lives, and have a significant impact on their current mental health, their ongoing development and future romantic relationships.
Why is it important to consider the impact of romantic relationships on the lives of young people?
Romantic relationships are a common topic of conversation, a significant source of preoccupation and rumination, and a major cause of strong emotions in adolescence.
Young people say that romantic relationships and experiences - whether real, potential or fantasised - account for many of their strong emotions both positive (e.g., excitement, happiness), and negative (e.g. jealousy, anger, distress). The negative emotions associated with romantic relationships can't be avoided simply by not getting involved in one.
Young people (particularly girls) spend a lot of time thinking and talking about romantic relationships, whether the focus is on past relationships, or potential future relationships, even when they are single. And young people who are not in a romantic relationship often say that not having a boyfriend/girlfriend is very stressful, particularly in early adolescence. In addition to having a major impact on a young person's day-to-day lives, romantic relationships impact significantly on their ongoing emotional and social development. They also lay the foundations for romantic relationships in adulthood.
While it is true that young people's romantic relationships tend to be shorter in duration than adult relationships, and typically involve less intimacy, attachment and commitment, they still play a very important role in adolescents' lives.
The impacts of a romantic relationship
Romantic relationships cannot be generalised as being either 'good' or 'bad' for adolescent development. The many benefits and risks of adolescent romantic involvement often co-exist. Positive outcomes can include enhanced self-esteem, popularity and social status, social competence, autonomy/independence, increased feelings of self-worth and protection against feelings of social anxiety.
Negative outcomes can include substance use, academic difficulties, stress and involvement in delinquent behaviour (particularly in relation to early sexual and romantic experiences), sexual health risks and unplanned pregnancy, risk of experiencing 'dating violence' or 'partner violence' and increased vulnerability to experiencing depressive symptoms (particularly for girls, and particularly following break-ups).
Supporting a young person during a relationship break up
Some things to consider:
Avoid assumptions about the significance of a relationship or the impact of a break-up
Don't dismiss distress resulting from a relationship break-up - young people may be at increased risk of developing a depressive episode following a break-up
Don't make assumptions about how significant a relationship was/is based on duration or age
Be sensitive to the ways in which a romantic relationship may affect existing friendships and/or family relationships
Do not dismiss their distress or assume they will simply 'get over it in time'. They may be feeling embarrassed or ashamed about seeking help for a problem they think they should be able to deal with alone - if your reaction reinforces this belief it can be very damaging
Discuss acceptable and unacceptable ways of coping with difficult emotions (e.g., stalking behaviour, cyber-bullying; see dealing with relationship break-ups)