If you’ve recently had a death in your family or community, you know how difficult it can be for an adult to get past the sadness and finality of death. When it comes to your teenager, his or her feelings might be similar to yours, or they might seem very different. Because teens are prone to mood swings and tend to have very strong feelings, helping them cope with a death or other type of loss can be overwhelming. Here are seven effective ways that parents can help a grieving teen get through a death, a rough breakup, or even the experience of a friend moving far away.
#1. Take Their Lead
Let your grieving teen know that you’re there for them, then back off a bit to allow them to follow their own mourning style. Some individuals will want to talk and cry about a loss. Others will want to express anger. And still others won’t want to talk about it all, choosing instead to spend time alone or simply going out with friends without discussing the loss. By telling your teen that you’re available for discussion, you’re letting them know that you care without violating their sense of privacy and their style of mourning. Keep an eye on your teen’s moods, but unless you see any red flags indicating a problem, let them be by themselves if that seems to be working.
#2. Familiarize Yourself With the Stages of Grief
Teens who have experienced a loss will probably go through the five stages of grief in some fashion. They might go through the stages out of order or differently than you do, but most people who grieve will, at different times, go through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This is why your teen might be nonchalant at first about the news of a loved grandparent’s death. This might be followed by a period of what looks like moodiness and anger, followed by feelings of guilt and wishing that they’d spent more time with Grandma when they could. A time of sadness might follow, then your teen will likely adjust to the new normal and accept the death. Knowing what to expect can help you support your teen through this time.
#3. Prepare Your Grieving Teen for the Funeral or Memorial Service
In the case of a death in the family, you might ask if your teen would like to be a pallbearer or read a passage during the funeral. Don’t be offended or upset if they say no, even if the other teens in the family are participating in this way. If he or she hasn’t been to a funeral before or it’s been a long time, prepare them in advance as to what to expect at the viewing, if applicable, as well as at the service itself. Give your teen permission to skip the funeral if he or she strongly desires not to go, but do let them know that a good way to say goodbye. If your teen is adamant, try to find some other way that they might be able to say goodbye in their own way.
#4. Encourage Your Grieving Teen to Talk to Others
Whether or not the person who died or left was close to you, your teen might feel more comfortable confiding in someone else about his or her innermost thoughts. If it was your parent or close family member who died, this might feel like a relief to you. If it was a friend of your teen or someone who you were not close to, this might come as a shock. Try not to be hurt or take it personally. Teenagers naturally try to distance themselves from their parents, and this might be one of those occasions. Instead, encourage them to talk to another family member or even their friends. It’s better that they have someone to talk to, even if it’s not you.
#5. Don’t Hide Your Own Feelings
Your teen is able to understand death at an adult level, so it’s perfectly reasonable for you to let your grief show in most cases. Don’t be afraid to cry in front of your teen or to talk about your favorite memories of the person who has died. It can make your adolescent feel better to offer you comfort, and it can be helpful if you are modeling a healthy way of grieving. One caveat: If you are having trouble expressing yourself in a healthy way or you are turning to unhealthy or dangerous behaviors, ask another adult to step in for your teen while you take care of yourself. Work on your issues without modeling potentially scary behavior to your teen.
#6. Find a New Normal
When someone has died or there has been a traumatic breakup of a relationship, it can take some time for things to feel normal again. Particularly if there’s been a death of someone close to the family, “normal” might not feel the same as it did before the death occurred. One part of the healing process is to begin to accept the new normal. Your new normal might be that there are three plates at the table instead of four. It might be that you will now go to your aunt’s house for holidays instead of your mother’s. For your teen, it might be that Friday nights are no longer spent with a best friend and that other plans need to be made. Try to find some way to help your teen accept these changes.
#7. Get Professional Help If Needed
Counseling or a support group can help you and your grieving teen get through the difficult circumstances surrounding the loss of a loved one. You don’t have to do it all on your own; a therapist can help you work through your feelings of grief, and he or she can do the same for your teenager. Depending on the specific nature of the loss, your teen might benefit from a support group for adolescents who have lost a parent or a sibling. Be watchful for signs that your teen isn’t doing well; if he or she is very withdrawn, depressed or not progressing through the stages of grief, get him or her some help.
Helping your grieving teen cope with a loss can be difficult, particularly if you are also dealing with the loss. Strive to continue communicating, look for ways to be understanding, and be on the lookout for any red flags that warrant an evaluation and counseling. Finally, don’t be afraid to get professional help for yourself if you need it. You and your teen will get through this together.