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How to Help Teens Deal with Grief

February 8th, 2024

Navigating the tumultuous waters of adolescence is challenging enough. But when grief enters the equation, the journey becomes even more complex. Teens, who are also dealing with a daily rollercoaster of emotions driven by hormones, stress and everyday teen angst, can be especially affected by loss. And during a time when many would assume they want and need support from caring adults the most, they often choose to process the loss with their peers. Understanding how to show up best to support teens during this time can make a huge, positive impact on helping them to heal.

Open the Lines of Communication

One of the fundamental pillars of supporting grieving teens is maintaining open lines of communication. Create a safe and non-judgmental space for them to express their feelings. Understand that adolescents may not always articulate their emotions clearly. It's essential to be patient and attentive. Encourage them to share their thoughts and concerns, and reassure them that their feelings are valid. It’s also helpful to focus less on “telling” and more on “asking.” Start a conversation with an open-ended question, like “I want to support you, but I’m not sure what to do. Are there ways I can help?”

Validate Their Emotions

Grief is like a fingerprint – it’s different for everyone. Grieving teens often experience a whirlwind of emotions, ranging from anger and sadness to guilt and confusion. They may be laughing with friends one minute, then crying alone in their room the next. Let them know that whatever they feel is okay. Avoid minimizing or dismissing their feelings, and acknowledge the pain they are going through. Validating emotions helps teens feel understood and supported, creating a sense of security during a challenging time.

Encourage Peer Support

Teens often turn to their peers for support and understanding. Encourage your grieving teen to connect with friends who can empathize with their experience. Sometimes, sharing thoughts and feelings with someone their own age can be more comfortable than confiding in adults. This is especially important when a peer group has lost a friend or classmate. Just keep in mind that when the loss is a parent or sibling, teens may suddenly feel “different” than their friends and feel like others can’t understand what they are going through. In these cases, it may be helpful to find other teens who have gone through a similar loss to help provide a sense of normalcy and make them feel less isolated.

Educate Them About Grief

Many teens may not fully comprehend the grieving process and feel overwhelmed by the intensity of their emotions. At the same time, they are likely to seek out advice from peers, who are also not highly trained or experienced with the grieving process. Taking a higher-level approach and providing a grieving teen with information about grief can be empowering. Share resources, books or articles that explain the stages of grief, common reactions and coping mechanisms. Understanding that grief is a natural and individual process can help teens navigate their emotions more effectively.

Encourage Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Teens, like adults, may resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms when dealing with grief, such as substance abuse or isolation. Encourage them to engage in healthy coping strategies, such as talking to friends, journaling or participating in activities they enjoy. Physical exercise is also a powerful way to release pent-up emotions and improve mood. By promoting positive coping mechanisms, you help teens build resilience and develop healthier ways to navigate life's challenges.

Provide a Supportive Environment

Create an environment of support and understanding within the family. Encourage siblings and other family members to express their feelings and share memories of their loved one. A sense of unity can provide teens with a support network, reinforcing the idea that they are not alone in their grief. Additionally, involving the family in rituals or commemorations can help create a shared space for remembering and honoring the person who has passed away.

Be Aware of Milestones and Triggers

Grieving is an ongoing process, and certain milestones or triggers can intensify emotions for teens. Birthdays, anniversaries, or significant events may evoke memories and amplify feelings of loss. Be mindful of these dates and anticipate that your teen may need additional support during such times. Acknowledge the significance of these milestones and offer reassurance and understanding as they navigate through them.

Find Professional Support

Sometimes, the weight of grief can be too much for teens to handle alone. If you notice persistent signs of distress, such as severe mood swings, withdrawal from activities, or academic decline, it may be beneficial to seek professional help. A therapist or counselor experienced in working with grieving adolescents can provide the necessary support and guidance to help them process their emotions.

Helping teens deal with grief requires a balance of empathy, communication, and support. By cultivating an environment where they feel heard, understood, and validated, parents and caregivers can play an important role in their healing process.

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