Mental Health: What You Should Know About Teenage Grief

Grief is a fact of life. It’s a natural reaction to losing a loved one. The problem, however, is that many of us are taught at a young age that we shouldn’t express “negative” emotions, which makes our grieving process even more difficult. It can even be harder for teenagers who don’t have the coping skills of an adult. 

Whether you’re a parent, an aunt or an adult friend of a grieving teen, here are some things you must remember when helping them cope with their loss.

Most teens understand death but don’t know how to cope.

Many adolescents have a good understanding of the concept of death. But, as mentioned, unlike adults, they don’t have the coping skills and life experiences that can help them grieve properly. They may not know how to deal with the landslide of emotions related to a  loss. 

One thing you can do to help a bereaved teen is validating the whirlwind of emotions they may be feeling. It’s human nature to offer solace by saying “be strong,” but that may cause anxiety to a grieving teen. And instead of processing their emotions, they may hide their feelings and act fine when they’re truly not. They might end up feeling more confused and guilty about how they should act and feel about a loss. So instead, tell them it’s OK to cry, distance themselves for a while and do what brings them comfort (as long as it’s not a harmful or self-destructive activity).

Some teens may get suddenly reckless or act out.

Acting out in anger is common among teens who don’t have proper coping skills. The anger may even be aimed at their family members or peers. Watch out if the parents are suddenly called out in school because of the teen’s behaviour. 

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It’s crucial to find out the source of this sudden behaviour change. Teenagers aren’t only grieving the loss of a loved one but also the amount of change occurring in their lives. For instance, if the adult members of the family are too busy arguing about wills & estate administration disputes, the family dynamics will likely change, and the parents may neglect the needs of the teen. In turn, the teen may do something reckless to get the attention of the adults or at least feel they still matter. 

Foster a real conversation with a grieving teen who’s acting out. Explain that you understand what they are going through and that the sudden behaviour change doesn’t make them a bad person. The “acting out” might be because they couldn’t talk about their emotions. So remind them you’re there if they need someone to talk to.

Many teens want to grieve with their friends.

Bereaved teens may withdraw from family and may not be receptive to support from adult family members—and that’s OK. Teenagers are at the phase of their lives wherein they need to be independent and separate from their parents. So naturally, they will lean more on their friends to cope with the loss of a loved one. It is even more likely to happen if the teen and their friends are grieving the same death (i.e. if the person passed was their high school buddy or a teacher they adore).

So don’t pressure the teen to stay close to your family while they’re grieving. You can offer support, but if they’re not receptive and want to hang out with friends instead, let them be. As long as they’re not doing anything harmful, they should be allowed to grieve in their own way. 

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Teens may have a unique way to honour the deceased.

Again, the bereaved teen should be allowed to grieve in their own way. If they want to throw a gaming party for a friend who passed (who was an avid gamer), support them by helping them set up the party in your home. If they want to eat breakfast at their deceased grandpa’s favourite dinner, why don’t you make it a ritual every week or month? Simply put, be open to the idea that your teen may have a unique way to honour their loved one who passed.

There’s no formula for grief. Even some adults find it difficult to process their emotions when they lose a loved one. So remember that the teens in your family may also have a hard time grieving the death of their grandparent or a close friend. Be there to support them and allow them to make sense of the world without the deceased.