As children become adults, they will undoubtedly have to deal with the death of someone close. It may be a teacher, a friend's parent, someone in their own family, or even a friend.
Though teens may seem mature enough to handle death, they often have a difficult time processing it, especially if the death was sudden or due to violence. Sometimes teens will act out or try to cope in unhealthy ways like using drugs or alcohol. Fortunately, there is plenty that parents, or any adult, can do to help teens grieve in a healthy way.
"Teens tend to search more for meaning in the death of someone close to them," explains Evan Kimble, one of the experienced grief counselors at Youth Eastside Services. "A teen who asks why someone had to die probably isn't looking for literal answers, but starting to explore the idea of the meaning of life." Kimble recommends taking the following approaches with grieving teens:
1. Listen and watch for opportunities to reach out and talk. Sometimes teens feel more comfortable talking in the car, or on a walk, than when sitting face-to-face. When your teen does reach out, give them your undivided attention and listen, but don't advise.
2. Don't force a teen to talk about his or her feelings. They will open up when they are ready.
3. Let your teen react to the loss in his or her own way. Some teens may show intense anger or dramatic sadness. They need reassurance that their feelings are normal reactions and that the grief will lessen over time.
4. Be slightly more forgiving of rebellious behaviors, but set limits and be firm and clear about your expectations. Teens usually feel more comfortable when they understand how far they can go with their behavior.
Teens grieve differently than adults. Their behavior may range from cold and withdrawn, to clingy. They may express grief on-and-off and for a longer period of time than adults. Give your teen time to adjust to a loss.
There is a need for concern if your young adult shows signs of chronic depression, sleeping difficulties, change in appetite, indifference to favorite activities, or risk-taking behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse. Also if your teen denies emotional pain while acting overly strong or mature. In these cases, seek the advice of a counselor.
Your honesty and comfort will go a long way in helping your child get through a difficult time—and through the inevitable losses that come in life.
Patti Skelton-McGougan is Executive Director of Youth Eastside Services (YES). YES is a nonprofit organization and a leading provider of youth counseling and substance abuse services in the region. Since 1968, YES has been a lifeline for kids and families, offering treatment, education and prevention services to help youth become healthy, confident and self-reliant and families to be strong, supportive and loving. While YES accepts insurance, Medicaid and offers a sliding scale, no one is turned away for inability to pay. For more information, visit YouthEastsideServices.org.