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Adolescent Grief

The loss of a loved one is an issue than many teens deal with every year. When a family member, close friend or peer dies, teens experience a loss that will be a part of their lives forever.

Adolescent years can be inherently difficult. These young people are in a phase of their lives when they are no longer children, but not yet adults. They have many of the responsibilities of adulthood, but lack many of the privileges. Their lives are in constant change as they begin the process of separating from their parents. In many ways, teens are pushing their parents away in an effort to take some risks at independence. If a teen loses a parent or caretaker during this period in their life, the teen is often left with a sense of guilt that will complicate the normal mourning.

Similarly, the loss of a sibling may create some feelings of guilt over normal sibling interactions that may have been affected by competition or rivalry. The loss of a close friend may create complicated feelings of guilt over academic competition, envy, or normal peer conflict.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the loss, adolescents need support to get them through. Because many adolescents appear physically mature, those around them make the mistake of thinking that they have the emotional maturity of an adult, and treat them as such. They are expected to “be strong” and “take care of the family.” Unfortunately, when a teen is given such a responsibility, they miss out on the opportunity to grieve, which may have harmful consequences later on.

The way a parent reacts to the death of a family member will have a great impact on the coping of their adolescent son or daughter. With the best intentions, many parents are too caught up in their own grief to be aware of how their teen is dealing with the loss. Often parents make the mistake of not talking to their teen about the loss that they have experienced. The belief is that in doing so, he or she will experience less sadness. The reality, however, is that teens suffer more from feelings of isolation than from the actual death itself. They may also believe that they are the only ones grieving and feel that their feelings are not validated.

Healthy grieving is important for a teenager. Signs of unhealthy grieving may include changes in eating and sleeping patterns, disinterest or decline in academic performance, change in peer or family relationships, increase in risk taking behaviors, or denial of pain and an appearance of being overly strong.

To support teens through the grieving process, parents can help by giving their teen permission to grieve by talking about the loss, sharing personal feelings to help normalize theirs, and confirming that it is all right to be sad and feel the emotions that they feel.

As the anniversary of the loss of a friend or loved one approaches, it is important to be aware that teens, not unlike adults, may begin to re-experience the feelings originally associated with the loss. Their reaction to the anniversary date may be similar to the way they reacted when the loss originally occurred, and what they need from those around them may be similar to their needs when the loss occurred. It is important for parents to be aware that these dates may trigger an emotional reaction and be prepared to be available for their teen.

If you find that your teen is having difficulty coping with the loss of a loved one, there are many services available at their school as well as in the community. Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS) has therapists on your teen’s campus to help him or her cope with loss. We also have access to outside resources to help parents get through difficult times.