Coping With Emotions

Teenage Grief Is Complex: How to Help Your Grieving Teen

Teenage grief is more complicated and unpredictable than experiencing loss as an adult. To get the help they need, grieving teens can benefit from counseling and support groups.

Experiencing the death of a loved one, friend or mentor is difficult at any age, but teenage grief is especially frustrating. Teens work so hard to appear cool, it can be difficult to get a handle on how well they’re processing their grief. It’s even more difficult if you’re suffering, too. There are times you need to set aside your own depression to focus on your teen. There’s no easy way to move through this, but there are some guidelines that help.

Don’t Dictate the Grieving Process

There’s no timeline for grieving, and the extent to which the death of a loved one will affect your teen will vary based on his relationship with the deceased, his own level of maturity and a number of other variables he may not even be able to articulate. It might be tempting to approach your grieving teen with an emotional talk, but you’re likely to have more success sharing your own emotions and allowing space for conversation. The National Center for Grieving Children and Families explains that teens don’t respond well when adults try to direct their grieving. It’s much better to journey beside them, listening and sharing in the process.

Teenage Grief Manifests Itself Differently

Teens are in an in-between space, trying out adulthood, but still needing the safe place parents provide. They’re starting to act more like adults, and it’s easy to forget that they don’t yet have the emotional maturity of one, especially with regards to issues such as death and grief. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), teens may not be receptive to help from friends and may not feel comfortable with the range of emotions they feel. This confusion may also lead to behaviors they wouldn’t normally partake in.

Signs Your Teen Needs Extra Help

Grieving is difficult for everyone, but sometimes people need more support to process their feelings and figure out a way forward in their life. If your teen starts exhibiting these behaviors, it may be time to consider counseling services:

  • New or an increase in risk-taking behaviors such sex, drugs and alcohol
  • Relationships with friends and others fall apart
  • Stops caring about school and other activities
  • Seems depressed or has sleep and self-esteem issues

Make Sure They Get the Support They Need

If you see these signs in your child or are worried about her well-being, professional help can lead the way. Social workers and chaplains can connect you with resources. Counseling and support groups are great for any teen dealing with the loss of a loved one. Teens need to be able to experience these emotions freely as they come up and process them with someone who won’t shut the conversation down or fall apart. If you’re grieving yourself, this might mean your child needs someone to talk to outside of the family. A coach, teacher or peer groups can assist teenagers as they work through their grief while continuing the process of growing up.

Encourage your child to express his feelings in some way, whether it’s in a journal, a blog or personal artwork. Don’t let him quit all his hobbies, and make sure he still hangs out with his close friends. Keep his routine as intact as possible; curfews, chores and rewards can remain the same.

And always reiterate that the feelings he’s experiencing may be new and strange, but they’re important to the grieving process. The more normalized the grieving process is, the easier it will be for your teenaged child to process it.

Interfaith chaplains at UVA provide bereavement support for families, including the younger members.

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Judy Schwartz Haley
Judy Schwartz Haley