Adolescence, that time between childhood and adulthood, can be treacherous territory for teens as well as parents. Teens face many challenges, including physiological and psychological changes, as well as social and academic pressures. They may also be experiencing losses for the first time.
Teens we have worked with in our local high schools have shared some of those losses with us. Their lists are long and include being defeated at a sporting event, losing a phone, studying hard but not getting the anticipated grades, experiencing their parents’ divorce, breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and having someone they love die. Some of the most profound losses they experience are intangible, such as the loss of innocence or childhood, loss of trust and respect, or the loss of identity and self esteem. The teenagers speak volumes about the challenges they face. Many of their losses go unrecognized by the adults in their lives, yet all have significance in big and small ways. And all losses bring grief.
How do we, the caring adults in their lives, help support them through the many losses and changes of adolescence, as well as the more profound losses of relationships or deaths of friends and family? Our first step is to recognize and validate that these experiences are difficult and stressful. We only add to their stress and isolation if we dismiss what they are feeling with comments such as, “You think you’ve got problems, wait until you have to work for a living.”
Here are some ideas that may help you to support grieving teens:
- Let them know you care. Send them a text, tweet or email, leave a note on their pillow, send them a card in the mail — tell them you care.
- Create time for connecting. Take them for pizza or ice cream. Sit with them at the end of the day as they are settling down for sleep; the dark can create a sense of space that can be helpful to teens. Check in while you are driving them; the car is a great place to talk and can be less intimidating than the kitchen table.
- Reach past the responses: “fine” and “nothing.” Teens want to know that you are really listening and care about their answers. So ask open-ended questions and wait for their replies. Talk less and listen more.
- Be honest. Teens have a heightened awareness to what they perceive as condescension. They want and deserve to know what is happening.
- Let them grieve in their own way. No two experiences of loss are exactly the same. Their loss is unique to them. Crying and sadness are common in grief, but some teens may react with humor and laughter. Expect the unexpected.
- Remember that the breakup of a relationship or friendship may seem to affect them more than the death of a grandparent. Peer relationships are primary for teens and these losses will hit them hard. Be prepared; their expression of grief for a family member’s death may come weeks or even months after the loss.
- Watch for unhealthy ways of coping. Teens may turn to alcohol and drugs to numb their pain. Pay close attention to their activities and friends.
The death of a close family member or friend is usually the most difficult loss for teens to experience. The sudden death of a friend who was killed in an accident, a parent who dies from a heart attack, or the death of someone from suicide all add the extra challenge of dealing with the trauma of the death as well as the loss of the individual. Often teens will feel numb when first told the news. This period of numbness is protective as they try to take in what has happened and its impact on their lives. In order to help teens through these challenges, remember to:
- Encourage them to express their feelings. They may do this through art, music, writing, dancing or even sports. Dedicating a sports season to a departed friend or family member can be a great way to honor that person. Creating memorial pages on Facebook or other social media can be very important to teens.
- Let them be teens. After a parent’s death, adults sometimes tell teens that they are now the “man or woman of the house.” People may also tell them “it’s time to grow up.” Teens need to know that the adults are still in charge and will be there for them. They can help with younger siblings just as they did before the death, but that is not their main responsibility. Their job is to finish high school and prepare for their next steps as young adults.
- Explore the resources in the community. Montgomery Hospice holds support programs for teens who have lost a parent or sibling. You can also consult with their school counselors and ask about other supportive services and professionals.
- Get help for your own grief. If you are also affected by the loss, getting support for yourself is a great way to support the grieving teenager. Finding a counselor or joining a support group is not only good for you, but presents a positive model for coping for teens. Call Montgomery Hospice Bereavement Care to find resources or to talk with a Bereavement Counselor.
Remember that grief can be a complicated and stressful experience and generally will take more time than we imagine. Remind teens that we never really get over the deaths of those we love, but we do learn to live with our grief and to find ways to honor and remember our loved ones.
By Linda Tebelman
Former Director of Bereavement