When Your Teen is Mourning their Life during the Pandemic
School dances. Sports. Parties. Hanging out with friends. Driving. Teams. Birthday celebrations. Flirting in school hallways. Graduations. College tours. Performances. Competitions. Clubs. Memories.
Teenagers everywhere are facing stunning losses. Once-in-a-lifetime events and normal rites of passage have been canceled due to the pandemic. Events that teenagers have been preparing for months have disappeared overnight. While all these cancellations are necessary for the health and well-being of our society, the emotional loss is real and significant. Ask a teen how they feel about the whole thing and you’re likely to hear something similar to, “I feel robbed.”
Some teens face new realities as parents lose employment and can no longer afford to send them to the college of their choice. A teen who worked hard for years to get into a specific program might feel it was all a waste of time if the finances are no longer available to make it happen.
Adolescence is the time when young people start to piece together who they are, but many of the pieces that once defined them are missing. The autonomy and independence that teens crave is next to impossible to achieve when most places are off limits. At a time when youth are supposed to be growing into a promising future, they are stuck at home. Even if they feel grateful for their health and family, many teens are also mourning everything they have lost.
Whenever we are faced with a significant loss, it is absolutely normal to feel sad, lonely, frustrated, or angry. So, what should a parent do when their teen is struggling with these drastic changes? Here are some ways you can help a teen deal with loss effectively:
Acknowledge feelings. One of the best things you can do when your teen is grieving is make it clear that it’s okay to feel strong emotions. You should NOT:
- try to talk them out of their feelings, such as pointing out what they still have to feel grateful for (you can mention ‘finding things for which to be grateful’ as a healthy coping mechanism when they are feeling calm),
- shame them for their feelings, such as pointing out that they are just missing prom while others are fighting for their lives (they will only feel misunderstood) or telling them that “it isn’t about you,” or
- offer platitudes such as “it could be worse.”
Allow your teen to sit with their grief. Be a witness to their loss. Offer empathy, such as, “I’m so very sorry that you have lost (insert event, sport, etc). It’s not fair. I know you will get through this, but that doesn’t make it any less miserable right now.”
Your teen has every right to be sad, angry or intensely frustrated about what has become of their year. Just like adults, children need time and the opportunity to mourn. Teens need their parents to validate their feelings. Let your teen know that grief is a normal response to this difficult situation.
Discuss healthy coping. At a time when your teen is calm, explain 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 substance abuse or overeating, can be destructive and may cause long-term complications and consequences. Help your teen find healthy ways to cope with their stress. If you need ideas, read our previous blog Instilling Healthy Coping Skills.
Accept differences. Explain that there are no “right” or “wrong” ways to express their grief, and everyone does it differently. Your teen may seem fine one minute and angry the next. Be patient with your teen throughout their process as grief often comes and goes in waves. Some teens may cry and feel sad, while others may respond with indifference or 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.
Open communication. There are two important parts of communication that you should make sure you do with a teen who is mourning what they have lost: 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 or when you’re involved in an activity together (such as taking a walk).
Keep structure consistent. Resist the urge to allow your teen to get away with breaking the rules due to the fact that they are grieving. Now, more than ever, your teen needs stability. Make it clear that you still expect your teen to follow house rules and follow a schedule despite the difficult circumstances.
Recognize that “this too shall pass.” Although right now the pandemic feels endless, we need to remind ourselves and our teens that it won’t be. Although we don’t know the specific timeline, the need for social distancing, closures and the life changes we are currently experiencing aren’t permanent. Knowing this makes it easier to cope.
Honor their loss. Encourage your teen to create something that honors their loss. For example, your teen could make:
- a collage or photo book of pictures, common sayings, or memories of the school year
- a treasure box holding special items that remind them of this school year
- a time capsule of their coronavirus experience – they are living through history right now!
Grief is a process, not an event. It takes time; be patient. Children learn how to handle loss from the adult role models in their lives. To help your children grieve in a healthy way, be honest about your own sorrow, and don’t try to hide it. This will help your children feel less alone, and you can model a healthy way of dealing with sad feelings. Never criticize a child for how they feel. Let your teen know that while they will likely always be disappointed they didn’t get to ____ (fill in the blank with their saddest loss, such as go to prom or compete on a sports team), their emotions will reduce in intensity over time. Give them hope for a better future!