Bereaved adolescents are simultaneously dealing with the loss of the deceased and with weathering the throes of adolescence, which is already a difficult stage of development. When adolescents mourn they mourn deeply, but often they invest significant efforts in concealing their feelings from those around them in an attempt to feel less vulnerable. Boys, especially, can find it hard to show their emotions. Adolescents often find themselves taking on the role of family caretaker, thereby repressing their own grief.
Adolescents’ reactions to loss have elements both of childhood and of adulthood. Feelings of pain and mourning are similar to those felt by adults, although adolescents may express more anger and engage in extreme, even dangerous, behavior. Cognitively, they are capable of understanding the meaning and finality of death, but they are often emotionally unable to cope with the loss.
Adults often feel a sense of helplessness with regards to grieving adolescents. In contrast to younger children, adolescents are more independent and adults often feel that they have little influence over them. It can be hard know what kinds of support networks an adolescent has, and a parent may feel that their child is rejecting their attempts to connect with them.
The first step toward coping with this situation is to understand the characteristics of grief that are unique to adolescents.
5 Characteristics of Teenagers Experiencing Grief:
- Questioning and doubts
Like adults, adolescents understand the finality of death. They are at an age where they question the values and ideas they have been raised with. Adolescents may question social norms around mourning, and may raise probing questions about justice, the meaning of life, and about death itself. It is important to understand this need. Allow the adolescent to form their own opinions even if they seem inappropriate or conflict with your own views. Try and listen to their point of view and express your opinion respectfully. Opening up a dialogue, no matter what the topic is, is in and of itself extremely important.
You may sense that your adolescent is drifting away from you after experiencing a significant loss. Adolescents may lock themselves away in their bedrooms, avoid you, and spend a great deal of time out of the home. This kind of behavior is perfectly normal, and typical of teens, for whom peers have replaced parents as their primary influence. Your child may even respond angrily to your attempts to draw them out, claiming that you don’t understand them. Make it clear that you are there for your child whenever they do want to talk.
- Risk-taking behavior
Sometimes teens who feel flooded with emotions will turn to violent behavior or irresponsible, even dangerous, acts. Often adolescents will take up this kind of activity to prove to themselves that they are invincible and that death cannot catch them.
- Substance abuse
Drugs or alcohol may provide temporary respite from your teens’ difficult feelings, but in the long run substance abuse will interfere with the healing process. If you suspect your teen may be abusing substances, first try to talk to them about it. Working with an addiction specialist is often the best way to go in this situation.
- Obsession with death
Many adolescents become obsessed with death following a loss. Incorporating death into their daily lives may help your teen cope with their grief and fear. In addition, adolescents may articulate either to you or to their friends thoughts of death, suicide or the purposelessness of their own lives. If the adolescent has talked of suicide, adults must take this seriously and should immediately seek professional help in order to prevent further tragedy.
5 Ways to Help Your Teenager Cope With Grief:
- Be patient
Offer your help, but don’t pressure them to speak about their feelings since this could them to withdraw further. Make it clear that you are always there for them if and when they choose to speak with you.
- Show respect
Even if your adolescent’s views feel offensive to you or to the deceased, try to withhold judgment. Show respect for their views and try and talk even if you don’t see eye to eye.
- Find time to be together
Even the most independent teenagers cannot cope alone. Don’t wait for them to turn to you. Initiate the conversation yourself: take them out for a cup of coffee. Show them that you value their input and opinion and that you are not afraid of exposing yourselves to them. Such an overture may be rewarded by a reciprocal response.
- Recommend websites, forums, and support groups on the topic
Participating in a support group or online forum can give teenagers the opportunity to make new social connections in a time when they might feel alienated from their friends and family. For those in Israel, Sahar is a highly recommended online forum that offers young people a chance to chat and find others who can have similar experiences.
- Turn to professional help if necessary
It is important to seek professional help in the following circumstances:
* You feel that your adolescent is not able to deal with the emotional burden that grief has placed upon himthem.
* Your adolescent lacks a meaningful social support network outside the home and refuses to open up to anyone.
* The loss is causing serious difficulties in areas of daily functioning, such as a decline in schoolwork, distancing from friends and sinking into lethargy.
* You suspect that your adolescent may be using drugs or alcohol.
* The youth hints of suicidal thoughts. Any such comment is a call for help and should be taken seriously immediately.