Teen and Young Adult Grief
COPING WITH TEEN GRIEF
Every year thousands of teenagers experience the death of someone they love. Statistics put the number around one in ten adolescents between the ages of ten and eighteen having experienced the lost of a close loved one. Many of these losses are sudden, such as a friend or sibling dying in a car crash, or a parent dying of a heart attack. Due to the fact that teens are in the process of forming their identity, a death of a loved one is likely to have an impact on the rest of their life. The sense that the loved one who is lost was someone who was helping the teen to form their identity will have a lingering affect on the identity they form.
WHY IT’S SO HARD TO GRIEVE AS A TEEN
The teen years are complicated enough under normal circumstances. From hormones and body changes, to peer pressure, social expectations and academic demands, being a teenager is hard. In many cases, all the stress leads to fighting and strained relationships. When you add a death into the mix, the sense of being completely overwhelmed is multiplied. Teens can feel guilt because they were fighting with the loved one prior to the death, or can feel alone because they have been fighting with the adult that they would usually turn to for emotional support.
NO LONGER A CHILD, BUT NOT YET AN ADULT
It is easy to view a teen as the child that they were not all that long ago. Many parents and close family members and friends may be tempted to treat them that way. A teen will cope with grief better if they are acknowledged as someone old enough to grieve deeply. On the other hand, although a teen may look like an adult, it does not mean that they are ready to grieve as an adult. They still need extra support and guidance on a consistent basis to make it through this complicated process. Putting expectations on a teen that they should be strong for those around them, or that they should be the one to care for the family following a death, will likely make the teen feel that they do not have permission to grieve like those around them.
IMPORTANCE OF AN ADULT’S GUIDANCE
Though teens are often trying to assert their independence, a time of grief is one in which it can be helpful to rely on an adult for guidance. Teens will watch how adults react to a loss in order to gage how they should respond. If adults are open and honest with teens about their feelings, then the teen is more likely to be willing to share their feelings as well. Trying to spare teens grief by choosing not to discuss the loss in front of them will not stop them from grieving, it will only reinforce a tendency to keep feelings bottledup inside. With the help of a trusted adult, such as a parent, family friend, therapist, or school counselor, a teen can learn important lessons about the joy and pain that come from truly caring about another person.
GAINING THE TRUST OF A TEEN OR YOUNG ADULT
The easiest way to gain a teen’s trust is to take the time to listen. Let them know that you care about what they have to say and acknowledge the depth of their grief. Don’t tell them how to grieve, instead listen to how they are approaching their grief process, and share with them what has helped you during your times of grief. Let them know that it is natural to feel sad, or frustrated, or angry. Also, let them know that they shouldn’t feel guilty if they sometimes feel happy too.
For most teens, books and research are a way of life. The majority of their time is spent in class or working on homework. While providing access to websites or books about grief can be a way to show a teen that you know they have the skills to work on their grief on their own, it is important to reiterate that you are there to talk to, and that you hope they will share their feelings with you as well.
Activities are a great way to help teens process their grief. There are a variety of different activities that prompt a teen to take the time to think through what they are feeling and why. Once a teen starts processing, they are more likely to share their feelings with you. If a teen would rather just talk, they will usually let you know. Some possible activities you could try are:
- Start a journal, diary or blog
- Write a story, poem, song or eulogy
- Create a memory book about the loved one who died
- Create a collage using words and pictures from an old magazine
- Visit a hospital or nursing home
SUPPORT GROUPS AND PEER COUNSELORS
For most teens, their trusted group of advisors is their friends. They often believe that adults are unable to understand what they are going through, and that only peers of the same age group can comprehend how they feel and what they are going through. This mentality makes peer counselors and support groups the ideal settings for many teens and young adults to process their grief. For many teens are the sources of comfort, acceptance and support that they need.
SIGNS THAT IT MAY BE TIME TO SEEK OUTSIDE HELP
Making the distinction between the normal mood swings and experimentation that most teens go through at some point and the signs that a teen is struggling to cope can be difficult. Here are some signs that might indicate that a teen could use some outside help to process their grief.
- Isolation from friends and family
- Changes in behavior or appearance
- Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
- Lack of motivation, skipping school, or dropping grades
- Sudden change in who the teen associates with
- Overwhelming social, family or academic pressure
- Depression or unusual levels of anxiety
- Talk of suicide or a fixation on death
- Constant feelings of anger or guilt
- Reckless sexual behavior
- Drug use