Teenagers Need Special Consideration During Grief
Teenagers are hard to understand due to a multitude of life changes. First and foremost, their bodies are changing. Hormones are flowing through their blood, altering and changing them into young adults. While these changes may occur physically, in many cases, there still exists a child that is confused. Secondly, teenagers are dealing with an array of pressures at school and among peers. As the teenager attempts to discover his or her self identity, he or she is confronted with new ideals that may contradict ideals at home. The lack of self confidence, changing physical features and the inner child may need to seek conformity with the latest social fads. If this recipe for confusion is not enough, then merely add grief, stir and let it rise.
Adolescents need particular care during the mourning of a loved one. First, one needs to help them acknowledge the death. In acknowledging the death, do not be suprised to discover that what may not seem important to you is very critical to the adolescent. The death of a boyfriend or girlfriend, or a school mate may be more influencing than a parent may think. Also, do not be surprised to find a myriad of emotional responses if one prods long enough. For example, if one’s loved one is killed violently, do not be suprised for a teen to have severe rage fantasies of enacting vengeance upon the culprit. It is important during these times to allow the teen to express but differentiate between healthy expression and taking action. Finally, when acknowleding the death, do not be surprised to discover that the teen is still not immune from magicial thinking. A teen could very easily feel severe guilt over a fight with a parent who later died that day. The key to remember is that teens, while appearing more adult like, are emotionally still childlike.
Second, one needs to help the teen move towards the pain of the particular loss. Just because teens appear resistant to mourning does not mean they are not in intense pain over a loss. Adolescents need to know that it is fine to express one’s feelings over loss.
Third, help teens remember the person who died. Teens will sometimes use journals or create memorials for the loss of loved ones. This is common when a schoolmate dies due to a car crash or other misfortune death. The teenagers come together in vigil and later offer commemorations for their fallen peer.
Fourth, teens need help in establishing a new identity after the loss. With the loss of a father, how will the teen now perceive himself? In this regard, it is important to help the teen grieve and develop a post loss perception of himself. In developing this new perception, the teen bundles together the loss with his future and creates a new identity that involves being without his father. It is important to note that new identities should not include becoming the “man of the house” for the grieving mother. Yes certain adaptations and duties will be needed, but the teen needs to remain a teen and not replacement of a loss husband in regards to emotional and financial support.
Fifth, help the teen search for deeper meanings of life. Prior to the incident, teens are shielded by a false immortality. After experiencing death, they are shocked into reality and find new meanings about life.
Finally, continue to help the teen. Teens, like younger children, grieve in doses. There is no doubt that when prom or graduation arrives that the teen will grieve the loss of a particular parent. It is important for grief counselors to be supportive during these times. Again the great premise, “grief is not an event but a process” must be accepted by all counselors if they truly wish to help their clients.
Danger Signs of a Grieving Teen
While one can expect certain levels of rebellion, moodiness, impulsiveness, reliance or egocentrism, there are some signs that parents and grief counselors need to be aware of. Red flag type behaviors include suicidal thoughts, chronic depression, isolation from family and friends, academic failures, changes in personality, eating disorders, drugs, fighting and inappropriate sexual behaviors. If these symptoms or behaviors manifest, the teen may be experiencing complicated grief reactions.
Ultimately, teens are going through a transitional period and grief only complicates things but if one is willing to take the time and care, then many complications can be avoided and the teen can heal.
If you are interested in adolescent grief counseling, please review the program.
Mark Moran, MA, GC-C, SCC-C