Teens grieve differently than younger children and adults, according to a recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology. That’s because teens have an adult concept of death but haven’t developed adult-level coping skills or the capacity for emotional self-regulation. Because grief can have a long-term impact on teens\’ sense of identity and their social and psychological development, it’s especially important to provide the right kind of support to grieving teens. Here are five strategies for helping them stay strong and resilient.
1. Encourage them to express emotions.
Grief causes a wide range of emotions– some of them unexpected and uncomfortable. Teens may feel anger, sadness, shock, denial, guilt, blame, numbness, cynicism, relief, fear, and more. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief provide a helpful framework, but experts agree there’s no set path for emotions to follow. Let your teen know that we all grieve differently and in our own time; it’s normal to feel a lot, to feel nothing at all, or for emotions to be all over the place. It’s also common to have good days and bad ones. Accept it all. Don’t judge yourself for feeling how you feel. Instead of holding it all inside, find healthy ways to express emotions, like talking to a trusted friend or therapist, joining a teen support group, or journaling.
2. Know what’s normal.
Grief makes teens’ mental health more vulnerable. While all emotions are normal, some of the ways teens experience or express their feelings may be cause for concern. Grief can lead to impulsive behavior and recklessness, and may increase the risk of substance abuse, self-harm, depression, and anxiety. Some teens may withdraw from family and friends and isolate themselves in their attempts to cope. If you’re worried about your teen’s mental health, reach out to a licensed therapist who specializes in grief and loss. They can assess your teen’s needs and provide tools and practices to support you both.
3. Keep routines consistent.
An experience of loss shakes up teens’ sense of stability, so routines are important to keep them feeling grounded. Try to make daily life as predictable as possible, for example, by going to bed around the same time every night and eating breakfast every morning. If your teen takes time off from school or other activities, talk to them about any challenges they might face in going back, then come up with a plan together. Make sure your teen doesn’t have to be alone unless they want to be; call on friends, family members, neighbors, and anyone else your teen trusts to check in and spend extra time with them. Schedule small, special things you can do together, like watching a movie or going for a hike. Prioritize self-care, relationships and wellness. Each of these practices keeps teens from feeling lost in chaos and steers them towards healing one day at a time.
4. Take meaningful action.
Part of the pain of grief and loss is the accompanying feeling of helplessness. It’s scary to realize that we can’t always protect our loved ones or expect the future to unfold in a safe, predictable way. To help teens proactively deal with their fears, find ways to take meaningful action. That might mean creating a memorial, putting together a scrapbook or photo album, or sharing favorite stories and memories. You could volunteer together, raise money for a cause, or commit to a shared goal in honor of a loved one’s memory. Doing something meaningful restores teens’ sense of self-efficacy and gives them a way to pay tribute to whom and what they’ve lost.
5. Lean into their big questions.
Grief can bring up challenging questions about the meaning of life, death, who we are as human beings, and why we are here. It’s normal to feel uncertain and unprepared to answer your teen’s questions, but it’s worth it to lean into that discomfort. As part of the process of identity-formation, teens undergo what psychologist Lisa Miller calls spiritual individuation: “This is who I am spiritually… this is how I perceive the world as a spiritual place. What is good, worthy, full, or empty? What is life-giving, and how do I join and become a part of what is good? Spiritual individuation is the adolescent’s drive to find deeper personal meaning and purpose.” Support your teen’s exploration first by being willing to listen, then by sharing your own thoughts and feelings as honestly as you can. It’s ok to be vulnerable or to say, “I’m not sure how I feel about that; what do you think?” What matters most to your teen is your willingness to join them on the journey.