Teenagers and Grief
As all adults will know or remember, our teenage years are a period of immense physical, biological, psychological and emotional change. When somebody close to a teenager dies, it can feel difficult for them to find a way through their grief whilst also managing to cope with the day-to-day unpredictability of their physical and emotional transformations. Adults supporting adolescents through a bereavement – often whilst coping with their own grief – may feel concerned, confused or even frustrated by their reactions.
It is common, for example, for young people to withdraw further from family, friends and social networks following a bereavement. They may find it difficult to concentrate in school or become disorganised with normal daily tasks. There may be an increase in anxiety or difficulty sleeping. Some might begin to involve themselves in harmful or risk-taking behaviours. Alternatively, teenagers may begin to push themselves harder to succeed. Where a parent has died, they may try to step into the role that adult filled within the family or hide their own distress in order to protect their surviving parent and siblings. Fear about safety and death of themselves and others is also common.
At SeeSaw, we believe that, just as dying is a natural part of living, all of these reactions too are natural and normal responses to grief. As parents, we are predisposed to protect our children. We often want to fix their problems, to take away their pain and to help them to move on. With grief, we cannot do this. There are no magic remedies or time limits. However, there are lots of things that we can do to support them through their bereavement at a time in their lives when there may already be a good deal of confusion, anxiety, emotional volatility, reluctance to show vulnerability and a search for a sense of identity.
How we can help
Reassure them that everything they feel is valid – that nobody will judge them if they feel guilty, angry, relieved, lonely, frightened or worried. We are all unique individuals with enormous differences in our genetic make up, brain functioning, support networks and life experiences so there is no right or wrong way to feel or to react to the death of a loved one. Let them know that their grief is just as important as everybody else’s. They have the right to grieve in their own way and to come to their own conclusions, perceptions and beliefs about what happens after death.
Young people should be told the truth about the circumstances of the death, even when adults feel the facts are too distressing for them to hear. Be honest and open with information aimed at their level of understanding and allow plenty of time for their questions. This will help to build and strengthen their trust and prevent them from imagining scenarios and events that are far worse than the truth.
Young people may feel that they do not want to talk about their feelings of grief or show their emotions to family and friends. Respect this reaction, especially in the early days. Let them know that you are there to listen when they are ready to talk. Alternatively, they may feel their thoughts are too extreme to discuss with the people closest to them in which case they would benefit from contact with another trusted adult such as a teacher or a grief practitioner.
If they choose to talk to you about how they are feeling, listen without interrupting, offering platitudes or attempting to make them feel better. If they ask for your opinion, give it openly and with honesty but do not offer unsolicited advice.
At a time when much of their life feels out of control, allow them as many appropriate choices as circumstances allow. For example, they may want to see the person who has died or be involved in decisions about goodbye rituals and ceremonies.
Where there are events, activities or special days, allow your teen to choose how they wish to manage things. Do not assume that they do or do not want to attend or be involved. For example, if there is a parent and child activity such as a ‘dads & lads’ sports game at school – is there an uncle, grandfather or close friend they would be happy to ask, or would they prefer not to participate?
Make it clear that normal boundaries concerning behaviours remain firmly in place. Not only does this set clear expectations for young people at a time when life may feel chaotic, it also helps them to understand that your job to keep them safe is still important to you. This will help them to feel secure which, in turn, facilitates regulation of their emotions.
Be understanding and empathetic to any difficulties with concentration and organisation. With the young person’s agreement, speak to the relevant staff within their school to inform them of the circumstances and to discuss work expectations, flexibility and deadlines where necessary.
Model grieving by allowing them to see your own appropriate reactions alongside your ability to continue with everyday tasks. Encourage them to take care of their mental and physical health and make sure that you do the same. Support them to continue with their regular sport or creative activities which will also help with emotional regulation and provide an outlet for challenging emotions and stress. If you find that you yourself need some extra support, there are organisations that you can contact for help such as Cruse.
Help them to find self-regulation strategies that will empower them to manage any immediate emotional and physical symptoms of grief. Used regularly, these strategies also help with anxiety levels and sleep disturbance as well building resilience and tolerance to future life challenges.
It is important that they feel able to remember the person who has died. At SeeSaw, we can advise and support you with continuing bonds work or signpost to appropriate books and resources to ensure that memories are recorded and preserved in safe and creative ways.
Over time, most children and young people cope well with the death of a friend or family member. However, if you are concerned that your teen is feeling overwhelmed by their emotions or that their grief reactions are extreme or persistent, speak to your GP for advice and support.