Friday, February 28, 2014

Teens and Grief

What impact can the death of a loved one have on an adolescent?

Adolescence is an exciting, yet anxiety-provoking time for both teenagers and their families. The death of a loved one can throw a wrench into typical developmental tasks such as identity formation, separation from parents, and exploring one's career options. A loss can:

  • Alter one's identity: A teen may wonder, "Am I still a brother? Can I continue to be an athlete? Can I trust the world, the community or my family?"
  • Lead to exaggerated or hidden emotions: A death can impact the expression of emotion during an already highly emotional time. Feelings about the death may be exaggerated, stuffed out of awareness or a mixture of the two. A teen may hide their true feelings from parents and be more expressive with peers.
  • Create a "big man/big woman" syndrome: This is commonly manifested as a teen takes on adult responsibilities, feels that he/she is now the leader of the family or denies the emotional toll of the loss.
  • Produce risky behaviors
  • Lead to helplessness and feeling overwhelmed
  • Influence proximity to home: some teens may stick closer to home and others may desire to be away.
  • Drive an adolescent to spend more time with peers
A loss experienced in childhood or adolescence can lead to:
  • Impaired relationships with others
  • Stunted emotional development
  • Inability to cope in a healthy way with future losses
  • Decreased academic performance
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Gang involvement
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicide
So how can caring adults help grieving teens?

A basic understanding of the grief process is helpful.
  • Grief is holistic; it's any reaction to a loss: emotional, behavioral, social and cognitive.
  • Grief is a process, not an event.
  • There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
Be genuinely interested in the grieving teen.
  • Offer a listening ear or to help in some way.
  • Be open with your body language, your mind (teens are easy to judge), and your heart. Perhaps the teen will want to discuss their loss with you or something completely different.
  • Know that you are helping no matter the topic, as showing that you genuinely care about their pain will in most cases encourage communication.
Finally, if you sense any thoughts or behaviors that can lead to the teen harming themselves or others, take action.

This blog post was written by Becca White, Arbor Hospice Grief Support Coordinator. You may contact Becca by commenting below or emailing her at

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