Losing someone we love is a painful experience for anyone. For parents, it can be difficult to know how to best support children after the loss of a loved one. This can be an especially challenging task with teenagers, as their quests to prove independence can lead them to present façades of composure. Educating yourself about grief in teens can help you recognize appropriate grief in your teenager and offer support. The following questions and answers offer some clarity.
What is loss?
Loss is a separation from someone or something you love or cherish. Losses can be physical (ex: death of a loved one) or symbolic (ex: romantic breakup or school change). Although the information described below will focus on the death of a loved one, it is import to acknowledge that teens experience many symbolic losses during adolescence (ex: termination of friendships, geographic moves, etc.). In order to offer genuine support, it is important that parents also acknowledge these losses as potentially painful experiences that adolescents may grieve.
What do teens understand about death?
Most adolescents have developed the ability to think abstractly. Therefore, usually they can grasp the concept of death as a permanent, irreversible, and universal experience that happens to all people. However, because teenagers have not fully developed long-term thinking skills, teens may still consider themselves immortal and invincible. Therefore, losing a loved can shake up a teen’s worldview and may prompt teens to question their own mortality. This may be especially true if a peer dies, as the death of a young person is typically unexpected.
What is grief?
Grief is a normal process that includes our reactions to loss. These reactions can be experienced and expressed physically, spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, behaviorally, and socially. Our reactions to grief: 1) help us to release the pain of our loss, 2) occur as we adjust to our lives without a loved one, and 3) help us to construct meaning around our experiences of loss.
What do grief reactions look like in teenagers?
It is important for parents to realize that grief may look different in teenagers than in adults. Each teen grieves uniquely and it is possible that two teenagers in the same family may have unparalleled grief responses to the same loss. For example, after the death of a grandparent one teenager may become noncompliant with family rules and have difficulty concentrating in school, and the other may become increasingly responsible and demonstrate improved academic achievement. This is normal and each teen’s grief response deserves acknowledgment and empathy. How a teen responds to the death of a loved one may shift depending on: 1) their emotional level of maturity; 2) their relationship with the deceased; 3) their previous experiences with death and, 4) the nature of the death (anticipated or unexpected).
Below is a list of commonly noted physical, emotional, and psychosocial grief responses teenagers may experience:
• Emotional Reactions: sadness, anger, irritability, guilt, loneliness, turmoil, relief, numbness, helplessness, or feeling abandoned
• Physical Reactions: sweating, nausea, racing heart, tightness in chest, vomiting, no energy, stomachaches, headaches, and bedwetting
• Psychosocial Reactions: Denial, repression, depression, lots of questions or no questions about the death, withdrawal from family, more apt to talk to people outside family, risky behaviors (ex: drug/alcohol use, reckless driving, sexual promiscuity)
What can I do to support healthy grieving in my teen?
1) Permit teens to grieve and model healthy grieving behaviors: Often times, well-intentioned parents try to encourage teens by placing unfair expectations on them such as “be strong” that can restrict how a teen grieves. Parental statements such as “he was just a classmate” also minimize a teen’s grief experience. You can encourage healthy grieving in your teen by letting them know it is okay to show that they are affected by the death of the loved one. Reassure your teen that each of us grieves differently and encourage your teen to find his/her own way to respond to the loss. Model healthy grieving behavior as teens will model you.
2) Listen, accept, encourage, and observe: Teens may be struggling to manage a roller coaster of emotions and thoughts after the death of a loved one. Let your teen know that you are there to talk with them about any thoughts, questions, or feelings they may have about the loss. Be accepting of how a teen feels and validate that emotional experience, even if it may be different than your own. Remain empathic and nonjudgmental. Do not force a teen to talk about the loss if they are not comfortable. Keep an eye out for signs of distress or danger. If your teen exhibits signs of unhealthy coping behaviors, seek professional support.
3) Help your teen find ways to express grief: Many teens prefer to “do” rather than to “talk”. Help your teen find creative ways to express grief such as creating a photo album (physical or virtual) to celebrate their memories with the deceased, journaling, or artistic expression (music, dance, drawing or painting, etc.). Allow your teen to have some choice in which formal grief rituals (ex: funerals) they want to participate in and prepare them for what they might experience during the ritual. Create family rituals that you can do together to celebrate the life of the deceased (ex: planting a memorial tree, candle lighting ceremony, etc.).
4) Maintain consistency with family rules and routines: Death and grief reactions can cause a teen to feel out of control. Teens may test the boundaries and limits. However, it is important to maintain the established limits and consequences—this provides a sense of safety and security in teens.
5) Connect your teen with support groups outside of your family: Your teen may feel more comfortable talking with other teens in a grief group. This can provide a sense of community and help teens know they are not alone. Lastly, help your teen connect with a mental health therapist who can help them process the loss and grieve.
Loss and grief can be difficult to navigate for parents and teens. Remembering these guidelines can help you to support your teenager in their journey to grieve and heal.
References & Resources for Parents: