How to Support Your Grieving Teen Child
1. Grief is a natural reaction to death and other losses. However, grieving does not feel natural because it may be difficult to control the emotions, thoughts, or physical feelings associated with a death. The sense of being out of control that is often a part of grief may overwhelm or frighten some teens. Grieving is normal and healthy, yet may be an experience teens resist and reject. Helping teens accept the reality that they are grievers allows them to do their grief work and to progress in their grief journey.
2. LISTEN. Your child may want to engage with you about the philosophical ‘why’s’ and what it means to live in a world that at times feels scary, uncertain, or unfair. Although you may not feel you have ‘wisdom’ about these issues, listening to your teen more and talking less is helpful. Your child may be open to how you or other adults or teens cope with a tragedy.
3. Structure is important. It is always helpful for as much structure that was in place prior to a loss or tragedy remains in place. Schools will try to maintain a certain amount of structure, while allowing room for grieving, and it is important that a teenager’s home routines remain in place as well.
3. There are no “right” and “wrong” ways to grieve. Sometimes adults express strong opinions about “right” or “wrong” ways to grieve. But there is no correct way to grieve. Coping with a death does not follow a simple pattern or set of rules nor is it a course to be evaluated or graded.
4. Be aware if your child’s grieving is ‘constructive’ or ‘destructive’. Some behaviors are constructive and encourage facing grief, such as talking with trusted friends, journaling, creating art, and expressing emotion rather than holding it inside. Other grief responses are destructive and may cause long-term complications and consequences. For example, some teens attempt to escape their pain through many of the same escape routes adults choose: alcohol and substance abuse, reckless sexual activity, antisocial behaviors, withdrawal from social activities, excessive sleeping, high risk-taking behaviors, and other methods that temporarily numb the pain of their loss.**
5. Teens often rely more heavily on their peers than their parents for support. Developmentally it is normal that teens are at a place where they may be desiring the support of their peers over that of their parents. Be aware that teens still need your supervision in order to make sure that they and their peers are handling grief in constructive manners. Although your child may be pushing you away in trying to deal with a loss, it is very important that parents remain available to their children.
6. Grieving is a different experience for each person. Teens grieve for different lengths of time and express a wide spectrum of emotions. Grief is best understood as a process in which bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors surface in response to the death, its circumstances, the past relationship with the deceased and the realization of the future without the person. For example, sadness and crying may be an expression of grief for one teen, while another may respond with humor and laughter. Parents can best assist grieving teenagers by accompanying them on their journey in the role of listener and learner, and by allowing the teen to function as a teacher.
**If you are concerned that your child is grieving in a destructive manner, or if you would like more information about supporting your child effectively through grief, you can contact your school’s counselor or school psychologist, or contact the Help Center at 586-3333 (open 24 hrs/day).
Document compiled by Thrive, allthrive.org, with help of information from Maria Trozzi M.Ed, Director of the Good Grief Program at Boston Medical Center, and The Dougy Center; The National Center for Grieving Children and Families, www.dougy.org