Understanding And Supporting The Grieving Teen
If you know a teen who is grieving a death, you may wonder what responses or behaviors you can expect to see and how to help.
Grief is a holistic experience
Grief can affect teens in many different ways: emotionally, behaviorally, cognitively, physically, and spiritually. The following are examples of how grief might look in these realms. Keep in mind that this list is just a sample of the indicators:
Emotional: Every emotion imaginable can be associated with grief. The most common ones include sadness, anger, confusion, fear, agitation, depression, relief, apathy, joy, restless, guilt, regret, irritability, yearning, increased appreciation, and gratitude.
Behavioral: Dropping activities/hobbies, difficulty sleeping, clingy behavior, regressions, aggression, withdrawal, nightmares, diminished/increased performance at work or school, decrease/increase in social engagement, substance use, over-planning/scheduling of activities.
Cognitive: Difficulty concentrating/confused thinking, forgetfulness, difficulty completing tasks, memory loss, narrowed scope of thinking, intrusive/repetitive thoughts, easily overwhelmed.
Physical: Loss of appetite, weight loss/gain, increased frequency of colds/flu, stomachaches, headaches, and nausea.
Spiritual: Questioning or loss of faith, anger at God or other higher power, strengthening of faith, questioning values, rethinking the meaning of life and/purpose.
So what does this look like in day to day life?
- Grief can make everyone forgetful. Teens may need extra reminders about chores and plans.
- School can become very challenging. Engage with teachers and administrators to help support teens.
- Teens may be less able to modulate their emotions and have more frequent outbursts and easily feel overwhelmed.
- Some may grow distant, turning more to peers for support.
- May see swings of maturity as teens move between feeling like a six-year-old one minute and then speaking with the wisdom of an elder the next.
- Push/pull of emotional availability. They may want hugs one moment and then retreat to their room the next.
- Teens can take on additional fears and concern about how the family is doing in terms of financial security. May have questions about their future based on these changes.
- Strong feelings of wanting to feel and be seen as a normal teen. “I don’t want to just be that kid whose dad died.”
- Dislike sympathy, but appreciate acknowledgment of what has happened.
Needs of Grieving Teens and Ways to Support Them
- Assurances: Grieving teens need supportive and available adults in their lives. Reassure them that grief is unique and that there is no one right way to grief. Knowing that grief isn’t something they have to “get over,” but that it will change over time, can also be comforting.
- Boundaries: Reasonable and consistent boundaries provide safety and support during a time of disorienting change.
- Choices: Teens are empowered when they have options and their choices are honored and respected.
- Food, water, and sleep: Grieving takes a lot of energy, so it is important for teens to have nutritious food, hydrating drinks, and enough sleep.
- Listeners: Not knowing what to say can leave us filling in the blanks with advice and words designed to make teens feel better. Practice listening and asking questions, allowing teens to talk and be heard.
- Models: Teens look to the adults in their lives to provide examples for how to grieve and express their emotions. Molly story
- Privacy: Much of the grieving process is private including reflection, emotion, evaluation, and memorializing. Kelina story
- Recreation: Grieving teens need “breaks” and chances to play, laugh, and be active. More than just their death.
- Routines: These create consistency so that teens do not have to constantly worry about what will happen next. Remember also to be flexible about your expectations.
- Truth: Grieving teens appreciate truthful information related to the death and potential changes in their lives.
For more info, see our guidebook, Helping Teens Cope with Death, or the DVD Helping Teens Cope with Death.