Helping the grieving teenager
November is Children’s Grief Awareness month and I have been encouraging readers to become better prepared to help children manage grief. This week I reflect on the grief of teenagers.
Mark is 15 years old, his father died when he was twelve and Mark appeared to handle his grief quite well. His family spoke openly of the death and although the loss was unexpected, Mark had good emotional support in a warm caring family. It took him more than a year to get adjusted to a new way of life in his family which includes three older siblings, who are supportive and loving toward him. Of late, Mark has displayed behaviors that are troublesome. Always a good student, his grades in school have dropped, he sleeps more than usual, and claims that he has a headache whenever his friends try to get him to go out socially. He is uninterested in family events and his newest mantra is, “Just leave me alone, I’m fine”.
In supporting Mark consider:
- Grief has no prescribed timeline
- Many adolescent milestones have occurred during the time between Mark’s loss and his current behaviors. New milestones result in re-processing grief, seeing the loss in light of a new awareness. Transitioning from junior high school into high school is only one of the major changes that Mark has experienced, typically an important time for a son and his dad.
- The rate of physical development of adolescents is akin to that of an infant up to the age of two. The rapid and constant physical changes that Mark is experiencing demand that he sleep more and that he learn to navigate hormonal and cognitive shifts.
- Identifying normal adolescent behavior from a worrisome grief response is vital in helping Mark.
Sally, who is 17 years old recently lost her best friend in a car accident that involved underage drinking. In addition to her friend who died, three of her other friends were seriously hurt. Sally’s response to the loss is anger, overwhelming sadness and fear. These emotions are manifesting in defiant behavior, endless hours spent alone in her room, and a refusal to talk about the accident. She refuses to go to school because, “it is all the kids talk about and I can’t stand to hear it over and over again.”
In supporting Sally consider:
- It is difficult to break through a teen’s belief that they are invincible, when they encounter the fragility of life it is a shock very hard to penetrate. This is the cause of great fear and anxiety.
- It is normal for teens to be frustrated over how their peers are acting, especially when it comes to death and loss. Social Media will no doubt both exacerbate and/or help Sally’s fears, anxieties and grief.
- Listening to Sally will be more comforting to her, than supplying answers to why this tragedy has occurred or taking the opportunity to warn her of the dangers of impaired
- Grief is a teacher and a journey; Sally is at the beginning of what will be a long process of grief. Showing her how to take one step at a time without attempting to process her entire loss prematurely will prevent her from becoming overwhelmed and will help her honor her friend and the lessons learned from her loss.
Troubling behaviors for teens experiencing grief:
- Total withdrawal from social activities with family or friends
- Repetitive, long-term withdrawal from their environment
- Use of alcohol, drugs, or dangerous behaviors to quell uncomfortable feelings or emotions associated with loss
- Threatening to harm themselves or another person
- Self-destructive behavior
- Taking unsafe, dangerous risks
- Any of the normal grief reactions that are extreme or of an excessive long duration
- Dramatic changes in their personality, reactions or habits that last for a long time.
No matter what the age or the circumstance of death, most teens are resilient and can be safely guided through loss. When there is concern that a teen is in danger physically or emotionally as they navigate a loss, it is up to the adults in their life to get them the help they need. Even if you are unsure whether to intervene with a teen experiencing loss, be sure you know your local resources and do not be afraid to use them. School psychologists, your primary care physician, ministers, and funeral directors, are all good places to start when seeking resources help for grieving teens.