Monday, August 12 is International Youth Day. In light of this, we recognize that many teenagers go through periods of grief. According to Kenneth Doka, a professor of gerontology at the College of New Rochelle, 1 in 5 children will experience the death of someone close to them by age 18. It is difficult to learn how to support a teenager who is experiencing grief because they are unique individuals who respond to life’s hardships in their own many different ways. But there are some pointers that you can keep in mind that can help you support a teenager grieving the death of a loved one.
Walk Alongside Them
When dealing with adolescents, it is important to remember that there is no one formula or answer for providing support. An individual’s grief can be impacted by a multitude of things including the teenager’s relationship with the individual, how the individual died, their past experiences with death and their personal strengths/weaknesses in dealing with adversity.
The most “conventional” way of supporting a grieving person is to simply be there for them. You can be there for them by listening to them, talking openly and giving them the space they need to grieve and cope however they need to.
For children of any age, we advise you to:
- Be available – being present to listen and answer their questions shows that they are important. Acknowledge their opinions, thoughts and feelings.
- Be patient and open-minded, allowing them to grieve in their own way.
- Let them know a range of emotions is normal. Validate their feelings, don’t downplay them.
- Check in with other adults in their life (e.g. teachers, coaches, etc.)
- Meet them where they are. If they do not want to open up about their feelings, do not force them. Children may feel more comfortable sharing “indirectly”, in everyday life moments rather than through intentional conversations.
Teenage Grief Considerations
First experience with death.
For teens with little or no experience in dealing with death, this will be the first time they experience intense emotions related to grief. This can be overwhelming as they figure out what coping strategies will help.
In addition, death rituals and etiquette may be a source of stress for teenagers if they do not know what to expect or how to act during funerals or memorials. Including your child in the planning process for these events may help prepare them. Encourage them to participate but do not force them, especially if it is causing them discomfort.
Teens are dependent.
Most teens are dependent on parents or family members. A death in the primary support system can create worry for teens as it can cause living arrangements, finances, emotional support and family structures to change.
Losing their caregiver leaves a gap in their daily life. There may not be anyone who can serve as a rule enforcer or teacher in their life. The death may cause physical instability if it means they have to move houses or find themselves in a foreign financial situation. Teenagers may find themselves having to take on new roles around the house such as taking care of a younger sibling. Or maybe parental discord following a death may have profound impact on the relationship between the child and parents. Acknowledge these losses and try your best to practically fill in these gaps.
Some teenagers may not feel comfortable “burdening” their parents or guardians in times of grief. Giving teenagers “permission” to speak and be open about their feelings with you goes a long way.
Emotional responses will differ.
Teens may express emotions differently. They may express intense emotions in a volatile way. They may not know what to feel at all. These responses are both okay.
Coupling teenage hormones with the extreme emotions that come with grief, they may express emotions in a way that does not make sense to you. Or they may try to hide their emotions because they are unsure about how others will perceive them. They could be embarrassed or feel detached from their friends because they may be the only ones to experience grief. Allow them to express emotion whenever and however they want to. Some may find comfort from journaling, others from going to the gym to work out, and others from playing the guitar. Be patient and understanding because everyone has their own ways of healing.
Teenagers come with their own set of grief considerations and it would be foolish to ignore those. But ultimately, the best advice for helping someone deal with grief is to walk with them through it while honouring your caregiving responsibilities like providing guidance, drawing limits and setting a good example.
It is extremely important to take care of yourself as well. Teens may witness their adult support really emotionally struggling for the first time. Grieving caregivers may present as extremely emotional or unable to care for their child’s needs. Be aware of the impact of your own emotions and what strategies you are using to cope. If you are also in a period of grieving, take time to take care of and seek support for yourself before you support others. And when times get tough, remember that at the end of the day, you are healing.