There are many major events that happen in one’s life that can result in grief. For teens, it is usually the loss of a grandparent. In more extreme situations, it might be the loss of a parent, sibling, or friend. Or, maybe the grief has come as the result of stress due to divorce. Whatever the cause, it is often easy to overlook the stress that these difficult situations have on teens, especially when we may be experiencing grief over the same loss.
Teens often put up a stoic front or try to demonstrate strength, often because it is hard for them to see their parent’s hurting, and they want to offer support. Other times, it is because they don’t know how to cope with their feelings, and find it easiest to push the hurt and anguish aside. Unfortunately, suppressing their grief is not healthy and can actually lead to other mental health concerns, as well as physical ailments.
If your teen has been through some sort of traumatic experience or is mourning the loss of a loved one, it is important that as a parent, even if you too are going through the same mourning, look for signs that your teen may be struggling.
Your teen may want to be treated as an adult, but they are not adults
Though teens, especially older teens, tend to put on a tough exterior, they really are dependent on their parents and other adults in their lives. A death in the nuclear family can shake a teen to their core and it may cause additional anxiety and worry for teens as they wonder what their future will entail. The death of a grandparent can be almost as difficult as the teen watches their own parent struggle with their loss.
Your teen will be trying to determine their role in this new world. Parents should consider the role that the person who is gone once played in the teen’s life. Work with your teen to help them understand how that role will be filled going forward (if at all). In the event of the death of a parent, or a divorce, your teen will be wondering about their physical security. Make sure that you are open with your teen about what the future may hold. You may have to move to a new home, and your teen may need to change schools. While efforts should be taken to try to provide as much normalcy as possible, sometimes these physical moves cannot be avoided.
Monitor your own emotional instability and the toll that it is taking on your teen. It’s acceptable to grieve and show emotion in front of your teen. This will actually help to normalize their own feelings and will show your teen that it is normal to grieve and to show these emotions publicly. But, be aware that if you are experiencing extreme emotions, it could lead to anxiety for the teen. Make sure that you do not create a situation where your teen feels that they need to support you. If you as the parent feel that you are losing control, you may want to seek outside assistance to aid you in your coping.
Death of a close family member can create marital discord between parents. If you have lost a child (thus your teen has lost their sibling) or you have lost a parent that you were exceptionally close with, you may find that this creates complications in your own intimate relationship. Grief can severely strain relationships. Extreme grief can result in arguments, you and your spouse may withdraw from one another, and you may argue. In some cases, the death of a close family member can lead to divorce. As such, complications in your own relationship may have a profound impact on your teen. If your family is going through extreme discord, you may wish to seek family counseling or couples’ therapy to work through the relationship challenges. If divorce appears to be inevitable, understand that this will create its own unique set of complications for your teen and will likely feel like a second death.
Supporting your teen through their grief
It’s not really possible to sum up how parents can best support their child or teenager without being overly general. Teens, though sometimes we tend to forget it, are actually complicated humans who have their own thoughts and feelings, and will act and react to various situations in their own unique ways.
Your teen’s grief can be jolted by a variety of things including but not limited to, their unique relationship with the person that they lost including how that person died, the support system that the teen has to rely on, past experiences with death (if any), and their own abilities to handle normal stresses or deal with adversity.
Parents will often be advised to just ‘be there’ for their teen during these difficult times. And, this is indeed important as you can help support your teen by listening to their feelings, talking to them openly about their feelings, and providing them with the space to grieve in their own way. Provided that their grief doesn’t lead to destructive behaviors, sometimes this can be enough. But in other cases, teens will need assistance working through their very complicated feelings.
If your teen is dealing with grief, be sure to do the following:
- Acknowledge your teen’s presence and their unique opinions, thoughts, and feelings about what they are going through.
- Let your teen take the lead. Make sure that you don’t tell your teen how they should think or feel, or what they should do. And, don’t force them to talk about it until they are ready. Be there and be available, and check-in frequently, but at least in the beginning, give them some time to come to you on their own terms.
- Be patient, open-minded, and monitor your own reactions. A reaction of anger or one that shows something other than support may drive your teen away. Be sure that you allow your teen to grieve in his or her own way.
- Validate your teen’s feelings and do not minimize them.
- Be available for your teen. Take time to sit down together. Make sure you truly listen and remain focused on them and not your mobile device or other common distractions. Answer their questions openly and honestly.
- Make sure your teen understands that there are many emotions that people go through during the grieving process and that everyone grieves a bit differently. Their approach to grief is likely quite normal, and they should be reassured of that.
- Stay connected with other adults that have influence in your teen’s life. This may include teachers, school guidance counselors, athletic coaches, youth ministers, etc.
- Encourage your teen to maintain relationships with their friends. It is natural that your teen may be more likely to lean on friends or other teens more than on adults, or even you.
- Provide an activity or obligation for your teen. Having a role can give your teen a sense of purpose. This may mean something that they are responsible for at a funeral or an ongoing activity that will be expected of them going forward. Don’t go overboard, but make sure that your teen knows that they are needed and that you specifically need them, and love them.
- Be open and honest, and do not try to sugarcoat the reality of the situation.
- Seek outside support for you and your teen.
Knowing when your teen needs additional support to deal with their grief
Though you as a parent are likely battling your own emotions, be aware that your teen doesn’t yet have the life experiences or maturity to get through their grief on their own. Make sure that you keep an eye on your child’s behavior and that you are regularly conversing. Further, be sure to look out for the following signs that indicate your teen may need additional support:
- Sleeping difficulties or restlessness
- Signs of depression
- Low self-esteem or a negative outlook
- Academic challenges or a recent indifference to school-related activities
- Struggling relationships with family and friends
- Participation in risk-taking behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse, violence (fighting), and sexual experimentation
- Acting overly strong or mature and denying that they are hurting
To help a teen who is having a difficult time with grief, parents should explore the array of services in the community where you live. School counselors, youth ministers, and private therapists are generally trained resources that can be highly effective in helping your teen. The important thing to remember is that the teen has a safe and nurturing outlet that they can lean on as they work through their grief.
Look for support groups and services for your teen
In many cases, teens may find it difficult to express their feelings in one on one settings. Though individual therapy can be very helpful and serves a purpose, your teen may feel more comfortable in the environment found in group therapy or a support group. Teens will likely find it easier to share their feelings when they are with other teens that are going through similar experiences. In group settings, teens can share stories as they are comfortable. Further, in a group setting, most teens will acknowledge that death has resulted in a complete disruption and change to their life. A few quick calls to your teen’s high school guidance counselor, to your local community center, or to your church will likely help you identify options.
The death of a loved one can be accompanied by guilt, especially in teens. Teens often let their imaginations get away from them, and it is not uncommon for them to believe mistakenly that they had something to do with the death, or that there was something that they could have done to prevent it. Regardless of the reasons for your teen’s grief, trained counselors at an adolescent mental health facility may be best positioned to work with your teen. Counselors that are well-versed in grief-related therapy can teach your teen coping mechanisms and can help your teen to rationalize their feelings and fears.
In most cases, teens can undergo group or individual outpatient therapy. But in extreme cases, it may be best for your teen to participate in a residential program to ensure that they have the support they need at all times. Ultimately, there is no tried and true or one-size-fits-all method of grief counseling. Each teen is unique, and every death comes with its own unique set of circumstances. Your teen’s grief will likely vary based on the type of death experienced, and who has died.
For example, in the case of a sudden death due to an accident or illness (i.e., heart attack), teens experience a personal void that will never be filled. This element of grief requires skillful handling of your teen’s emotions. If the death occurred after a lengthy or lingering illness, your teen may struggle considering the agony of the illness. When the loved one resided in the same home as the teen, your teen will feel the loss every day going forward, and this can be a lot for a teen to handle.
In extreme situations, teens face more than one death in the family or among their other life contacts. When this happens, your teen will likely feel isolated and will need elevated levels of support to work through the feelings. And reeling from losing someone to suicide is generally accompanied by a social stigma that teens must face at school, on social media, etc.
It’s unfortunate that any of us can lose people that we love, and that we occasionally undergo traumatic situations. Unfortunately, in most cases, there is nothing that we can do to avoid it. As a parent, the best thing that you can do is to keep a mindful eye on your teen and to remind them that you are there for them, regardless of where they are in their grief journey, or where you are in yours.
If you have a teen who is struggling to cope with grief from losing a loved one, you have options when it comes to treatment. Here at Hillcrest, we know how to work with teenagers in order to help them develop healthy coping mechanisms and a course of positive action to help them heal from their loss. Reach out to Hillcrest today to find out how our facility can help your grieving teen.