It’s difficult to sum up how to support a child or teenager without being overly general because, just like big wrinkly humans, they are complicated individuals who think, feel, act, and react to life in their own unique ways.
An adolescent’s grief can be impacted by any number of things including but not limited to, their unique relationship with the individual, how the individual died, their support system, past experiences with death, and their own unique strengths and weaknesses when it comes to dealing with stress, adversity, and high emotion. Grownups seeking to support an adolescent should try to remember that a wide range of responses are considered ‘normal’ and there’s no one formula for providing support.
Fortunately, conventional wisdom says the best way to support a grieving adolescent is to ‘companion’ them, which is just a fancy way of saying be there for them which you (hopefully) already know how to do. You can ‘companion’ a teen by supporting them, talking openly and honestly, listening, allowing them to grieve how they want, and allowing them to decide how they will cope (with the exception of self-destructive behaviors).
Yeah I know, this sounds a lot like supporting adults. And, although younger tweens and teens still have some work to do emotionally and developmentally, older teens (approximately 16-18) who are able to understand complex relationships and other’s points of view, are likely to grieve in the same way adults do.
We advise with children of any age you do the following:
- Acknowledge their presence, their importance, their opinions, thoughts, and feelings.
- Be patient and open-minded. Allow them to grieve in their own way.
- Be available – Sit with the child, listen to them, and answer their questions.
- Let them know that a range of different emotions is normal.
- Validate their feelings and do not minimize them.
- Check in with other adults involved in their life – teachers, school counselors, coaches.
- Find age appropriate resources. Check out our favorite resources for supporting teens and young adults over here.
Now, I know anyone who’s ever lived with an adolescent is thinking,
“Dude, I’m intimately acquainted with a teenager and they are nothing like adults.”
And you’re right, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge teenagers come with their own set of grief considerations. But it’s important to emphasize the above because at the end of the day our best advice will always be to walk with the adolescent through their grief while still honoring adult-ly responsibilities like drawing limits, providing guidance, and setting a good example.
Okay so back to those teenage grief considerations, when supporting an adolescent one should remember the following:
This may be their first experience with death:
For many children, this is their first experience with death. For significant relationships, children may come to define their lives in terms of ‘before’ the death and ‘after’ the death. After a death adolescents may experience the following for the first time:
- End of life rituals and etiquette: Many children have yet to attend a funeral or memorial service well into their teen years. Rituals and etiquette may cause anxiety for adolescents, especially if they don’t know what to expect or how to act. Additionally, teens may be uncomfortable with the feeling of being on stage as everyone watches to see how they’re coping.
- Tip: Prepare the child for what to expect depending on the type of services you are going to have. Include them in the planning. Talk about what, if any, elements they would like to be a part of and what, if any, they can opt out of. Encourage them to participate but don’t force.
- Emotions: For adolescents who have little experience with trauma, death, pain, or stress, this will be the first time they experience the overwhelming emotions related to grief. This can be frightening and many don’t have the self-awareness to know what types of coping strategies will help. More on emotions later.
- Tip: Normalize the range of emotions grievers are apt to experience. Prepare them for shifts in emotion and give them permission to laugh and feel happy when they feel like it. Help them brainstorm coping strategies based on their personality and strengths. Offer options like counseling, journaling, and workbooks, but don’t push.
- Questions about life’s meaning: Not all teens are ready to ponder life’s complex existential questions, but they are certainly old enough to contemplate ‘why’s and ‘what for’s in the face of a death. This may be the first time their world view, religious views, or sense of immortality has been challenged.
- Tip: Allow for open dialogue about a life’s philosophical, theological, and logistical questions. Don’t minimize their questions and help them find their own answers. Support them in talking to religious leaders if appropriate. Try and remember that while you’ve had years to ponder the meaning of life and death, these are questions they are only just beginning to ask.
Teens are dependent:
Most teens are dependent on adults and/or their family members for one thing or another. A death in the primary support system can cause anxiety and worry for teens because there’s the potential for things like family structures, living arrangements, finances, emotional support, and day-to-day living to change. A death can weaken the primary support system/family structure in the following ways:
- Loss of a parent: The death of a parent can have a huge impact on a teen. Duh. Okay, so which parent died? Was it their gender role model? Was it the parent who they relied on the most? The disciplinarian? The comforter? The nurturer?
- Tip: Consider the roles this parent filled for the child and acknowledge these losses. You can’t replace the parent, but you may have to step in and fill their shoes to some degree. You might become the rule enforcer or you might want to try to be more of a comforter (in your own way please, don’t be awkward).
- If the deceased was their same gender parent, think about other male/female adults who could have a positive influence on them. Spend more time with that person as a family, or support the child in spending one-on-one time with them (Helpful Hint: Clue the adult in that they ‘have been selected’, may the odds be ever in their favor).
- Physical instability and insecurity: With the loss of a family member, physical stability can be threatened in several ways. A few examples include loss of financial security, a change in housing, a new school, or fear of being orphaned.
- Tip: Discuss the family’s status, decisions, and plans for the future with adolescents. Tell them the truth and give them choices, this will help them regain a sense of control. Some changes cannot be prevented, so hold a family conference to discuss concerns and decide how tough situations can be made easier.
- Emotional instability of adults: Following a death teens may witness the adults in charge really struggle. Grieving parents and caregivers may present as extremely emotional, unable to care for the child’s needs, or unable to fill parental roles (perhaps their own or perhaps those of a deceased parent).
- Tip: It’s okay to grieve and show emotion in front of an adolescent, this normalizes feelings and sets a good example for expressing oneself. But be self-aware, if your emotion is extreme it could cause anxiety for the adolescent and/or put them in the position of having to support you. If you feel yourself losing control, it’s time to look at your own coping.
- Parental discord: Grief can strain relationships, even if the death only affects one-half of the couple. As a result of grief parents may withdraw from one another, argue, get their feelings hurt, and/or break up/divorce. Complications in a relationship can have a profound impact on the child.
- Tip: Families experiencing extreme discord might consider seeing a Couples Therapist or a Marriage and Family Therapist. If breakup/divorce is inevitable, be aware this comes with its own set of complications for an adolescent and will possibly feel like a secondary loss.
They have their whole lives ahead of them:
Which means they have a life full of milestones and rituals like weddings, graduations, learning to drive, birthdays, and first jobs; and they likely imagined their loved one would be a part of these. It’s common for children to grieve these future rites of passage and then feel the loss all over again when they occur.
- Tip: When these events roll around, acknowledge the impact of the deceased person’s absence. Let the teen (or by then, adult) know it’s okay to feel sadness even though it’s also a happy day. Discuss and encourage creative ways to incorporate your loved one’s memory in the day/event. Check out our posts on remembering your loved one on your wedding day here and here.
They’re searching for their identity:
A major task during teen-hood is the quest to define oneself. What are their likes and dislikes? What are they good at? What is their personal style? What are their values and beliefs? Inevitably, as it does with everyone, the death of someone they love will impact how they define themselves in the present and future. Consider the following:
- They are the kid whose [insert relation] died: It’s common for a teen to be the only person in their peer group to have experienced the death of someone important. As such, they may feel alone in their experience and/or like a novelty to teens who are clueless about grief and death.
- Tip: Be available to talk about their experiences. Don’t take it the wrong way if they try to ignore the loss and act like nothing has happened. To teens, peer relationships can feel more important than adult relationships so they may prefer to talk to trusted friends rather than adults. Offer them the opportunity to spend time with other teens who’ve had similar experiences through teen support groups or teen grief camps.
- Do they have to take on new roles as a result of the death?: A grieving teen may find they have to help more around the house, especially when their parent(s) are also grieving. Teens are often asked to take on adult responsibilities like carpooling, childcare, emotional support, part-time jobs, and role model for younger children.
- Tip: Try to remember that younger and middle teens are not yet adults. Take a hard look at the appropriateness of the roles they’re taking on. Responsibility is good as long as it’s age-appropriate and they still have adequate time for school work, hobbies, and fun.
- They can feel overshadowed by a sibling’s death: Children who’ve experienced the death of a sibling may find themselves feeling overlooked and overshadowed. We encourage parents to talk about and remember their deceased children; just be aware that when the deceased child gets the majority of the attention, living siblings can feel jealous and worried they don’t measure up.
- Tip: Don’t compare. It’s always good advice to focus on individual children and their individual strengths. Make sure your children get equal attention and acknowledge their qualities and accomplishments whenever possible…I mean, why not?
They may mask emotion or emotional expressions may look different:
Teens experience and express emotions differently than adults. Again, duh. Your teen’s emotional expressions may surprise you, they may seem over dramatic or conversely they may seem repressed. Where emotions are concerned teens:
- May be embarrassed about their feelings: Often, adolescents want to fit in and go unnoticed. ‘Grieving’ may differentiate them in a way they’re not comfortable with. Younger teens especially (12-14) tend to feel there is something of an imaginary audience watching what they do; for this reason, they may be cautious about how and when they express emotions. Teens, just like adults, may choose to grieve privately and may downplay their grief in the presence of others.
- Tip: Allow the teen to express their emotions when and how they like. Don’t make them feel guilty for acting as though nothing is wrong, this doesn’t mean they don’t care. If they’re open to your assistance, help them find ways to grieve they’re comfortable with. Some adolescents may find comfort in the privacy of a journal, book, or a one-on-one grief counselor. As always, be patient and follow their lead.
- Expression of emotion may seem volatile: Adolescents can shift moods pretty rapidly; one minute they’re happy and the next minute they’re distressed. To some degree, these shifts in mood are due to increased hormones and their developing brains and bodies; but the extreme emotions of grief can have the mood-swing-effect on teens and adults alike. You may find yourself scratching your head wondering what made them so upset, but they may not even be able to identify the trigger (just like adults).
- Tip: Try to put their emotional expression into context. Understand the wide range of emotions associated with grief and anticipate teens may be more likely to express emotions like anger than sadness. Try to be open, accepting, and validating of their emotions and make sure they know you’re available to talk. Seek outside help if you’re worried they’ve been distressed, withdrawn, depressed, or destructive for a prolonged period of time. Check out our post on normal vs not so normal grief.
- May seem self-focused: Adolescents, in general, can be very self-focused. Younger teens especially (12-14) have a hard time taking other’s perspectives into account. This is a skill that has to be learned as their brain develops and so they often come off looking self-centered and lacking in empathy. It follows that younger teens will have difficulty understanding other’s grief reactions when they are different from their own. Jill’s things are important to me, how could Dad clean out her room? I’m still sad, how could Mom possibly think about dating?
- Tip: Be patient.
Teens are invincible superhero’s (in their mind) i.e. impulsive crazy people:
Generally speaking, teens are far more impulsive and willing to take risks than their adult handlers. Younger to middle teens are especially apt to feel invincible and immortal. Both teens and adults employ destructive coping mechanisms like alcohol, substance use, sex, antisocial behavior, and withdraw, but teens are less like likely to accurately assess risk and use good judgment. Conversely, they are more likely to experiment and take perilous chances.
- Tip: Sometimes when a child experiences the unthinkable pain of grief, adults feel compelled to go easy on them in ways that are overly permissible and enabling. Sometimes adults are too distracted by their own grief to notice what’s going on with their children. Don’t let this happen – don’t hesitate to ask questions and medal when it seems necessary. Remember, as a parent, caregiver, or concerned adult it is your job to draw lines and set limits. You won’t have control of them for much longer, so set limits while you can.
- If you’re worried about how your child is coping, you may want to speak to their doctor, school counselor, or a child psychologist. If they ever express thoughts of harming themselves or others you should call 911, go to your local emergency room, or call a local crisis response team. In the US you can seek support 24/7 through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
If you found this post helpful, you should check out our other posts on Child and Teen Grief. Do you know someone helping a teenager deal with grief? Send this article their way. And of course, subscribe to ‘What’s Your Grief’ (over on the right) to receive posts straight to your e-mail inbox.
Prefer to listen to your grief support? Check out our podcast on supporting a grieving teen.