Supporting Your Teen Through Grief And Loss

Posted on November 19th, 2016


Teens go through many challenges during their adolescence including physical changes, changes in friendships, first loves and heartbreak, preparing for college, and learning to be more independent. On top of these challenges, some teens may also experience a loss in their life. A loss isn’t solely categorized as the death or terminal illness of a loved one. It can also include the loss of a friend, the breakup of a romantic relationship, the loss of a pet, as well as many other things. It is important to remember that these other experiences are also considered a loss. Many of us, including teens, go through a similar grief process when faced with these different types of loss.

The five stages of grief that can be experienced when faced with a loss include: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages are not linear and once a stage is experienced it does not mean that an individual or teen will not go through that stage again. It is crucial to remember that every individual’s grief process is unique. For some, grief takes longer to resolve than others and one person may stay in one stage of grief longer than another person. Additionally, people will express their grief differently. Some may cry openly and others may process their emotions internally.

It is not only important to be aware of how loss is different for teens, but also how expressions of grief can be different for any individual. Some of us are more outwardly expressive with our emotions while others of us turn inwards. Your teen may become more irritable, may retreat to his/her room, or could behave as if everything is fine in order to hide his/her emotions. Whether one expresses grief outwardly or inwardly is not important. What is important is being aware of your teen’s grief and how he/she is responding to those feelings so that you can be a better support to your teen.

How is loss different for teens?

Teens may go through the same stages of grief as adults do, but their experience is going to be dependent upon their development. Teens’ brains are still developing, which means they do not have the full functionality of adults. Specifically, teens are not yet able to manage impulses as well as adults or plan ahead, which can impact their ability to deal with loss in a healthy way.

Often, teens have difficulty putting loss into perspective. Sometimes, it is hard for them to see how their lives will ever feel normal again. As adults, we experience this as well, though we have more life experience to manage these feelings and find hope. For teens, an experience of loss can lead to intense feelings of sadness, low self-worth, anger, and hopelessness.

It can be helpful to empathize with your teen’s feelings and to remember what it was like for you as a teen going through loss. Even if you are not able to personally relate to your teen’s loss, imagine what it must be like to be in his/her shoes so that you can better understand your teen’s feelings and provide support. Love, support, and time will help your teen process the difficult feelings related to his/her loss.

How to help your teen through loss

Knowing the extra challenges teens face when grieving a loss can help parents better understand their teen’s experience, but what can parents do to help their teens manage the grief process? Teens need extra emotional support during times of grief, regardless of the type of loss experienced. What this means is that they need support from people to whom they can express their feelings. Even though it can be difficult for you, this person might not always be a parent. If this is the case, help your teen to reach out to a trusted adult (family member, mentor, teacher, or a coach). You can also help your teen find a support group or an individual therapist.

Teens may be more prone to choosing negative or unhealthy coping strategies, such as drugs and alcohol. It can be difficult for them to understand the long-term negative impact these behaviors can have, and intense emotions can promote impulsivity. In order to help your teen make the right choices, it is important to know what healthy coping strategies are. Most healthy coping strategies involve one or more of your five senses and/or creative abilities. Some examples are listening to happy or upbeat music, going for a walk, drawing, writing, talking to someone you trust, aromatherapy, cooking, or eating comfort food. You can help your teen engage in these strategies by organizing family time around a healthy activity such as walking, cooking or eating together, watching his/her favorite movie, and making time to discuss your teen’s feelings. Help your teen engage in these healthy coping strategies.

It is also important to be sure your teen is meeting his/her physical needs. Often when we are experiencing grief, we struggle to take care of ourselves. This can lead to not eating, not drinking enough water, not sleeping, isolating from others, not grooming, and not exercising. Be sure to help your teen eat healthy, stay hydrated, get rest, socialize with others, attend to hygiene, and participate in some light physical activity. These behaviors can have a huge impact on mood and help your teen better manage feelings of grief.

Remember to be patient as your teens travel through the stages of grief and loss. Watch out for unhealthy behaviors and steer them towards healthy coping strategies. Be available to support them and help them connect to others who can be supportive emotionally. Understand that their grief is going to be unique to them and that through healthy behaviors, love, and support, your teen can find healing and hope for their future.

For more on Teen brain development:
The Teen Brain Behavior Problem Solving and Decision Making

For more on stages of grief:
The 5 Stages of Grief and Loss

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Teen Therapy Center provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.