10 Things for Adults to Know About Teens & Grief

Grief can be a difficult process for most people.  It is particularly hard for young children and teenagers.  It is during these two periods of life that we change and develop more than any other time in life.  It is these changes that can make grief particularly hard for teenagers.

There are many reasons teens find grief difficult. Due to the significant developmental changes that occur during adolescence, teens can still be very unsure about how to process and express strong emotion.   Teens often think that they and their friends are invincible, so it can be a great shock and challenge to their view of the world if they lose someone close to them.

Below is a brief list of some of the key points adults need to know about grieving teenagers.

Provide a Caring and Supportive Environment

The most important thing for a grieving teenager is to know there are people who will care for and support them. Adults who make it very clear in words and actions that they are concerned for how the teen is going, are prepared to listen, and have time to spend with them are crucial for a teenager.  Of particular importance for a teen is adults acknowledging that it is okay to feel numb, sad, angry, confused, scared or whatever other emotion that may be experienced. Adults also need to provide a sense of normality.  Continuing to enforce normal limits and boundaries is very important for a grieving teenager

Beware of Mixed Messages

Often teenagers, particularly boys, are told to be strong and look after others during periods of grief.  Such messages directly contradict any invitation to share how they really feel.  There is little point telling a teen that you want to know how they are going and then tell them they need to be strong. Such mixed signals will only add confusion and uncertainty. Messages should be consistent, and most importantly messages should encourage and invite teens to share and express their actual feelings – not bury them for the sake of others

Expect Them to Look to Peers First

As teenagers are in the process of differentiating themselves from parents and other significant adults, it is very common for them to turn to their peers during times of grief. The intense experience of grief, especially if their friends share it, is a powerful experience for an adolescent and the communal context provides a safe environment for mutual expressing of emotions.  This can provide helpful catharsis.

Don’t Assume Peer Support is Enough

Although teens are likely to turn to peers, adults should not always assume that their teen is doing so, or that the peer group is providing adequate support.  Often peers may not know how to process what is happening and may avoid a grieving peer, or only be able to offer part of the support required.  Adults should always check with and offer support and comfort to a teen- not assume such offers are not required.

Teens May Try to Protect Adults

Teenagers are inclined to try and protect adults they care about, particularly parents. An adolescent’s belief that everyone is as obsessed with them as they are may result in the conclusion that their grief would be too much for the adults in their life.  If teens see adults grieving they may conclude that they should not further burden them with their own problems. For both these reasons teens may try to hide their grief from adults.  For these reason adults should be clear about their desire to support a teen, and never communicate they need a teenager to be strong for them.

Grief Can be Triggered by Unrelated Events

Often feelings of grief can be triggered by events that may appear quite unconnected to the loss in question.  There will be something about the context of an event or a place that the teen will consciously or sub-consciously associate with what has been lost.  Adults need to be watchful for unexplained or disproportionate emotional reactions to everyday events, and be careful not to react to the inappropriateness of expression but attend to the loss the emotion is associated with.

Remember Anniversaries Can be Painful

For adults and teens the anniversary of a loss, or other special occasions that occur since someone was lost, can be very significant and bring to the surface grief related emotions.  For teenagers who have encountered loss at a younger age developmental changes may mean they engage with grief at a different level and need to grieve a loss again with a different perspective.

Teens May not Know How to Process Their Feelings

Feelings associated with grief can be very strong.  For some teens the intensity of such strong emotions can be a new experience leaving them unsure about what is happening or how to appropriately express feelings. This confusion can lead to teens becoming withdrawn or sullen, aggressive acting out, seeking escape in substance abuse, or just needing to run or walk to get out the pent up energy. Exploring feelings and the means of processing or expressing feelings can be an invaluable resource for a grieving teen.

Watch for Physical Symptoms of Grief

The inability to process or articulate strong emotion can result in teens experiencing various grief related physical symptoms.  Headaches, stomachaches, nausea, insomnia, nightmares, marked increase or decrease in appetite, poor concentration or memory lapses can all be associated with grief.  Of course they may also be getting sick, so always check.

Numbness Is Normal

The shock or magnitude of a loss can be too much for a teen to process sometimes.  They protect themselves by emotionally shutting down and feeling very little at all, or just feeling numb.  This should not be confused with indifference.  Adults should not try to make a teenager feel something, rather continue to watch and be ready to support when the numbness passes and the teen is able to engage with their feelings.

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