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Helping Teens Deal with Grief

by Margaret Conry, MFT

Teens experience grief differently than a child or adults. Although an adolescent may understand death, in contrast to adults, he/she may have less ability to cope because of intense, emotional responses. They often feel overwhelmed by their emotions, depressed, angry, and fearful of the future.

There is also an increase in  suicides among teenagers to-day and they may not know how to cope with the death of their own peers. They may see suicide as a way to cope with their own problems and They needs someone to model a healthy reaction and to explain that suicide is not a  solution as there is always another way to solve a problem.

They sometimes feel responsible for the death and are likely to express their guilt in intermittent, brief outbursts.

Fear is another symptom and they can often experience anxiety about what will happen or worry about how others will view them.

Grief is a normal reaction to the loss of a loved one. It usually involves shock or numbness. Many people describe it as “like watching themselves going through the motions while experiencing a sense of detachment. There is often denial, anger, depression and an eventual coming to terms with the death and loss. This process can take several months.     

Signs of trouble include; isolation, a general preoccupation with death, unhealthy mechanisms of coping such as use of drugs or alcohol, self-blame etc.

If a teen you know has lost a peer or family member:

  • You can be helpful by being patient, caring and available to talk about the death with them. Teens don’t like feeling pressured about how to express their feelings. So, it is important to let them share their feelings in a safe, nonjudgmental setting.
  • It is also important to remember that the teen should have opportunities to have normal associations with peers and be involved in school and other activities. They can also benefit from grief support groups for teens from which they can get support from their peers. 
  • Adolescents will experience a wider range of emotions and more complex ways of coping. Because of their need for peer acceptance, teens may internalize their pain and suppress their needs and alternate between clinging to and running away from parents. Grief derails this normal process and the death of a family member (especially a parent) may cause them to act out, regress or even become preoccupied with death or experience suicidal thoughts and possibly become clinically depressed during the first year following a death.
  • If the relationship with the deceased was conflictual the teen may experience relief mixed with guilt about feeling the relief and may blame themselves for the death.
  • They will experience confusion, fear, and concern about what will happen to them and how others (particularly, their peers) will view them.   

Caring for teens

One of the most important sources of help in times of grief is social support. Many teens are reluctant to talk to professionals about their grief and instead turn to siblings, parents, or peers. There is a need to make professional services available to teens in schools and teen organizations. Teen support groups can provide a safe environment for them to express feelings normally associated with adolescence and those related to the death of a loved one.

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Margaret Conry, MFT is a therapist in private practice in San Ramon, California. For more information, please visit his listing on the Therapist Directory.

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