Teens grieve differently than adults. They move in and out of strong emotions and often grieve for a longer period of time. Their behavior may range from cold and withdrawn to clingy, to appearing as though they are doing fine. They are often not able to express in words, how they are feeling or what they need.
Initially, following a loss, teenagers seek out their friends. This is particularly true after the loss of a friend. They feel most understood by and connected to their peers. At times, parents may feel their teen is avoiding their emotions, because they do not want to discuss what has happened or how they are feeling.
What Does Grief Look Like in Teens?
- Anger- They may lash out at those closest to them because they feel out of control
- Withdrawal- They may pull away from family, drop out of activities, or cancel plans
- Impatience- They become impatient and easily irritated with others, especially over trivial things
- Difficulty relating with peers- often feel like they no longer fit in, as they can’t relate to what their friends are concerned with. They find their friends can’t understand the magnitude of their loss
- Lack of focus- They find it difficult to concentrate, especially in class and on homework
- Guilt- They feel guilt because of something they believe they did or did not do that might have prevented the death. They feel guilty about something they did or said to the deceased
- Lack of motivation or interest- They find themselves not caring about anything
- Loneliness- They feel different from their peers, which makes them feel isolated
- Overwhelming sadness- They feel extremely emotional and sometimes paralyzed from the pain
- Drop in grades- They are unmotivated or unable to focus on their work
Supporting Teens Who Are Grieving
Teens want and need to be included in important decisions. They do not want to be treated like a child. Honesty is important, and they do much better with information than ambiguity. In the absence of information, their fantasies are far worse than reality. Adults should recognize that teens have less coping ability and life experience to handle grief. They have no framework upon which to place their thoughts and emotions.
The following are suggestions for parents and friends of a grieving teen:
- Assure them you are strong enough to allow them to express their feelings. Too often teens “shelve” their grief because they do not want to add to your pain.
- Listen to them and reflect back their feelings. Allow them to vent. Don’t try to solve their problems. You can’t fix this, so don’t try. Let them feel their feelings.
- Get back into a routine as soon as possible.
- Reach out to them no matter how they are behaving. While it may be difficult to see past the behavior, remember that behavior is taking the place of their words and pain.
- Be consistent at home with rules and schedules, but be flexible when needed.
- Don’t ask directly how they are doing. Teens do not do well being put on the spot. Most find it easier to talk about their feelings when it isn’t face to face. Instead take a walk, engage in an activity together, and allow the conversation to unfold indirectly.
- Gauge how much information they can handle, if they are asking about the circumstances of the death.
- Protect their health. Make sure they are getting appropriate sleep, exercise and nutrition.
- Find ways to honor and remember your loved one together.
- Encourage them to talk about the person they have lost. This is an important part of healing.
- Be an advocate for them with school. Talk to their teachers and counselor, help them access support.
- Maintain important family traditions, especially ones connected to holidays and life events.
- Stay close and be accountable if they need that reassurance. This is particularly important following the loss of a parent.
- Provide helpful books—discuss them or read them together.
Above all, parents and friends are encouraged to give their teen the necessary time and space to grieve. They need this time to process their feelings, and to understand the scope of the loss and how it impacts their life. There is no escaping the loss, so there is no rush to push teens to process their feelings before they are ready. Denial can be a helpful coping mechanism, as it sometimes acts as a filter, letting in small amounts of information at a time.