Helping a Teen Deal with Grief
The holidays can be an especially difficult time to deal with grief. Whether your teen lost a pet, a friend, or a family member, the emotional rollercoaster that follows can be overwhelming. Those feelings, however, are a necessary part of the healing process. Teens who try to ignore those emotions, or those who struggle to find healthy coping skills, could be at risk of depression or making unhealthy choices.
Here are some ways you can help a teen deal with loss effectively:
Normalize feelings. One of the best things you can do when your teen is grieving is make it clear that it’s okay to feel angry, lonely, sad, or even guilty. Coping with loss doesn’t follow a pattern, nor does it feel “natural” because it’s difficult to control our emotions and thoughts and being out of control can be scary. Grieving, and the emotions that go along with it, are normal and healthy.
Discuss healthy coping. Regardless of your emotions, explain to your teen that there are “helpful” and “unhelpful” choices and behaviors associated with the grieving process. Some behaviors are constructive and encourage facing grief, such as talking with trusted friends, journaling, creating art, and expressing emotion rather than holding it inside. Other grief responses, such as alcohol and substance abuse, can be destructive and may cause long-term complications and consequences withdrawal from social activities, and high risk-taking behaviors. Help your teen find healthy ways to cope.
Accept differences. Explain that there are no “right” or “wrong” ways to express your grief, and everyone does it differently. Your teen may seem fine one minute and explosively angry the next. Be patient with your teen throughout the grieving process as grief often comes and goes in waves. Some teens may cry and feel sad, while others may respond with humor. Some teens are very talkative, while others withdraw. Some teens seem to process through the grief within a couple of weeks, while others take months. The way teens grieve differs according to personality and the particular relationship they had with their loved one. For example, a teen might be more affected by the loss of a close boyfriend or girlfriend than the death of a distant grandparent.
Open communication. There are two important parts of communication that you should make sure you do with your grieving teen: 1) be honest, and 2) actively listen. Give your teen an opportunity to talk about their feelings, but recognize that they may not want to talk, and that’s okay. Do not pressure your teen to talk, just be available, and also recognize that sometimes it’s easier for teens to talk when they’re not looking at you (such as riding in a car) or when you’re involved in an activity together (such as taking a walk).
Keep rules the same. Resist the urge to allow your teen to get away with breaking the rules due to the fact that their grieving. Now, more than ever, your teen needs stability. Make it clear that you still expect your teen to follow the rules despite the difficult circumstances.
Provide reassurance. It’s very common for teens to transfer the death of one person to the fear that they will lose other people they care about. After a loved one passes away, your teen may become anxious about a grandparent’s health or may worry that you’re going to die. Do not dismiss their fear as silly. Instead, talk to them openly about their concerns and reassure them that, while death is not something we can control, your teen will always be loved and cared for.
Get professional help when necessary. If your teen still has ongoing feelings of deep depression, withdrawal from social activities, or repeated nightmares months after the loss, seek professional help. A trained mental health professional can help your teen talk about feelings, deal with the loss, and learn how to express his emotions in a healthy manner.
Honor their loss. Encourage your teen to create something to preserve and honor their loved one’s memory or serve as a special keepsake. Your teen could make:
- a collage or photo book of pictures, common sayings, or memories of the person/animal they lost
- a treasure box holding special items that remind them of their loved one
- a memory garden, tree, or some other permanent memorial that seems appropriate to the loss
- rituals or traditions to remember their loved one, such as lighting a special candle on the anniversary of the death or eating at their loved one’s favorite restaurant on his/her birthday
When someone experiences a loss, many people respond with that common phrase, “Time heals all wounds.” While this is meant with the best of intentions, it can make a grieving person feel upset and misunderstood. Be sure you tell your teen that, while they will likely never stop missing the person/animal, their emotions will change in intensity over time. For example, if a teen loses a beloved grandmother, they might feel anger and unbearable sadness when it first occurs, but a year later, they may find they are chuckling over shared memories of her. Don’t minimize or rush their grief, but do offer them hope for a better future.