Dealing with grief is tough at any age, but for teenagers that are experiencing the profound loss of a loved one, perhaps for the first time, it is often bewildering and difficult to cope with. Many teens will struggle to deal with the volatile emotions they are experiencing, and will need a caring, empathic hand to guide them through the devastating time in their life.
Provide the support and love they need.
Adolescence is a crucial point in a child’s life, and with older teens, it is often easy to overlook that the virtually grown-up body may still contain a scared and bewildered child. During this pivotal phase of development, the impact of losing a parent can have a serious effect on the teen’s well-being, especially if the relationship was conflictory or difficult, leaving them with a sense of abandonment or a feeling of irresolution.
Whatever the nature of bereavement, teenagers will need all the support, understanding and love they can get; it is so easy to assume that they can take on the responsibilities of an adult, such as taking care of younger siblings when a parent has died, yet it is important to recognize that they are still children, and should be treated as such. It is relevant to mention that although teens may look to their peers for advice or help (especially if the loss is a mutual friend), unless the friend has been through something similar themselves, they will be unable to relate fully, or provide your teen with the level of support needed.
Let them deal with grief in their own way.
Many parents try to protect their children from grief by playing down their own feelings of loss, not allowing their teen to see them sad. Or, parents might minimalize their teen’s sense of grief, not fully understanding how badly it has affected them. Both will only confuse children: their sense of loss won’t disappear just because you don’t talk about it, but it might make them feel awkward, questioning their own reaction if they perceive that others don’t feel as strongly as them.
Therefore, it is always better to allow your teen to see you upset; grief is a terrible emotion, but it is also completely natural, and teens need to know that. Encourage them to explore their emotions, even if they are bewildering to them; anger is a normal stage of grief, yet it may lead your teen to feel confused if they are angry about someone who had been very close to them. Keep a dialogue open, letting your child know they can discuss anything with you, and expect some deep questions about the meaning of life, especially if this is the first loss in their life.
As a parent, you need to help your teen deal with the loss in their own way. You can’t rush along the grieving process; they are all unique individuals, with different opinions, personalities and experiences, and as such, will need to discover a way through it that works for them.
When to seek professional help.
Not all children need outside help, although in most cases, especially in the case of a deceased parent, teens often benefit from professional assistance.
Some teens are simply unable to talk about their feelings to a parent, so a support group might be the ideal environment for them to open up about their grief. Watch out for signs that your teen isn’t coping: although sadness is natural, a prolonged loss of appetite, sleeping difficulties (too much or not enough), restlessness or a decrease in self-esteem, can all indicate chronic depression. Similarly, it is understandable that school work and relationships may temporarily slide; however, if there is a complete disregard for school and other people over a continued period of time, or an increase in risky behavior, it might be that your teen is struggling more than you initially realized. In these situations, it might be a good idea to speak to other adults in your teen’s life, such as teachers, and perhaps seek help from a grief counselor, or therapist.
Teens need adult help to get through probably one of the most difficult times they are ever going to face, and the guidance you offer is crucial, not only their understanding of the situation, but how well they come out the other side, and subsequently deal with similar events in the future. Listening skills, a caring attitude, and a ton of patience are all invaluable ways to guide your teen through a difficult time.