Are you a parent struggling to navigate your teen’s grief?
The pain of losing a loved one can be especially challenging for adolescents, who are already navigating the complexities of growing up. Watching your child go through this difficult time can be agitating and leave you feeling helpless. However, there are solutions you can employ to support your teen through their grief and help them emerge from the experience stronger and more resilient.
In this article, we will provide you with the information you need to understand the unique challenges of teens and grief.
Teens and Grief
It goes without saying that only a parent truly knows their child best – and there’s little point in providing in-depth advice to consoling a child without the knowledge that comes with years of familiarity. But understanding how grief might impact teens generally, and why they might process grief and sorrow a little differently than children or adults might, may help some parents find a way to get through to their teens and provide solace in a difficult time.
Teens are old enough to know and understand that death is a part of life. But that fact does not make the cold reality of a loved one’s passing any easier to swallow, especially if it’s your teen’s first time losing someone they care about. We see and hear about death every day, whether it’s a motorway accident or the casualties of a war far from home. But it only truly hits us when it’s closest – a neighbor, a family member, a friend.
If this is your teen’s first experience with death, then know that it may take them some time to process what’s happened.
Here’s what you need to know about teens and grief in order to provide the support they need.
Death Throughout the Ages
Generally speaking, young teens treat grief in the same way children might – but older teens process grief closer to how an adult would. The following guideline is meant to help illustrate some of the differences in grieving reactions between age groups, but it is also important to highlight that individuals will often mature at a different rate than the norm. Some teens are more emotionally mature than their peers, while others are not.
Younger teens, ages 13 to 16, will have difficulty with emotional expression. They are more likely to act out or experience bursts of emotion during the early stages of grief, such as sudden irritability. They are still likely to internalize a person’s death in the same way children might – meaning, they might find a way to blame themselves if they were very close to the person – and may experience physical symptoms while grieving, such as unexplained pains. Stomach complaints and headaches are the most common.
Vivid dreams or feelings of being in the presence of a deceased loved one are also more common among younger teens.
As teens get older, they greave more like adults, especially after the age of 16. Older teens are not as emotionally mature as adults, but post-pubescent teenagers will typically have a better grasp on their emotional states and ability to convey and express themselves than their younger peers. Some teens may grow cold following the death of a close loved one – their emotional response may be to withdraw and hide their feelings from others. Others yet may try to use humor, sometimes even offensive humor, to relieve the stress and sadness of a loved one’s death.
However, just like children and adults, older teens are still susceptible to some of the effects of long-term grief and loss, such as feelings of irritability, increased risk-taking behavior, and even depression.
Grief is Normal
There’s no need to pathologize or treat someone’s grieving process, so long as their emotions are still within the parameters of grief. While it is normal to be concerned for your teen’s mental wellbeing, it’s also important to know that it’s normal to feel awful after a loved one dies – even to the point of no longer having much of an appetite, struggling at school, or generally feeling uninterested in hobbies.
Grief is normal. But it is important not to forget that we are alive, and that grief is a temporary state. Research indicates that it peaks around six months after a person’s death – it often isn’t constant, but comes in waves. Feelings of grief may last for years after, but will usually only be felt strongly during moments that serve as a reminder of someone’s passing, or special occasions.
Prolonged or complicated grief may be a cause for concern – if your teen continues to feel depressed years after a loved one’s passing, for example, they may be having trouble processing and moving on from that death. Professional counseling may be in order, simply to help a teen find ways to reinvigorate themselves and find joy in life.
In some cases, the loss of a loved one can be a trigger for an underlying risk or condition, such as a panic disorder or another anxiety disorder, or mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder. In these cases, the grief of losing someone isn’t so much a cause as an inciting event.
The point at which grief becomes something to worry about is when it lasts far too long, or when it becomes too severe. Some teens experience feelings of suicidal ideation or lean into self-harm after losing someone they care about. These are dangerous warning signs of a deeper underlying problem, including a potential mood disorder like depression.
Family and Friends
Support and companionship are important. One of the underlying key differences between adults and teens in the grieving process is experience. Older people are aware that death is not just part of life, but part of everyone’s life. They learn to share that feeling and cope alongside others, seeking the comfort and support of their loved ones.
Teens might not have this wisdom. Some teens might internalize their feelings and seek to hide or be alone, so as not to affect or “poison” others with their sadness. Some teens – and many adults – feel crushingly lonely after a loved one’s death.
It’s important for teens to understand that they are not alone, especially after someone dies. We cope with these tragedies together, whether they were expected (in the case of a sick or elderly relative) or entirely out of left field.
Comfort your teen with words and actions. Encourage them to cope through normalcy, through everyday experiences. Give them time to be alone for a few days, a week, but then encourage them to go back to school, to talk to their friends, to spend time with you and others.
If your teen continues to struggle with their grief, to the point that they cannot return to a normal routine, consider talking to them about counseling.