A Parent’s Guide to Grief in Adolescents

Ways To Help

Adolescents Cope with Loss…

  • Be alert to nonverbal behaviours of adolescents following a death-related situation. While they may be unable to tell you directly about their pain, they may be expressing it by being quiet and moody or by acting in a dangerous and reckless manner.
  • Be willing to share your own thoughts and feelings about the person’s death and how you are choosing to cope.
  • Be open to listening and talking about anything that an adolescent may wish to explore, such as the circumstances and cause of death or the pain of the loss and the processes of mourning.
  • Be patient. These conversations may take a lot of time, energy, and understanding on your part-which may be difficult for a grieving adult to provide. However, this will be time and energy well spent for both you and the adolescent.
  • When an adolescent acts out his or her grief in an angry way, it is first important to acknowledge and respect this as an appropriate feeling. Then help him or her to find healthy and appropriate ways to channel the anger, such as through involvement in athletic activities, music, writing or dramatics.
  • Try to have a non judgmental attitude toward how the adolescent may be responding to the death even if you disagree. By providing acceptance of his or her feelings, it will increase the chances that he or she will continue to share them with you.
  • Help adolescents to find their own solutions to problems, rather than imposing your solutions upon them. Tone of voice, eye contact, and touch are all powerful communicative tools that are the most natural ways to show trust, love, and caring between an adult and an adolescent.
  • When an adolescent does confide in you, it is important to respect confidences revealed in private.
  • Encourage adolescents to participate in family activities and decision making, seek their opinions, and praise their ability to handle responsibility in mature ways.
  • Adults need to provide adolescents with reassurance that it is okay for them to move forward with their life plans.

Adolescents – Understanding a Death

Children in this developmental group may…

  • Have a clearer concept than younger children that everyone will die eventually.
  • May be confused by the unpredictable, sudden death of an apparently healthy person.
  • Characteristically withdraw from the family and spend more time in his or her room alone or become unusually angry or aggressive for no apparent reason.
  • Ask questions about the circumstances and the cause of the death. Ask broader questions about grief and loss or about the processes of mourning.

Responding to a Death

Children in this developmental group may…

  • Share or not share their feelings in a direct way.
  • Engage in careless, reckless behaviour, almost as if they are flirting with danger and defying death.
  • Feel a special responsibility for taking care of parents and/or other family members, especially if he or she is the oldest child.
  • Seek support and understanding from friends and/or adults outside the family, such as teachers, clergy, or neighbours.
  • Feel a great deal of anger about the death and may act out their grief in healthy and appropriate ways such as sports or hobbies, or in unhealthy and inappropriate ways such as abusing alcohol and drugs.

Commemorating a Life

Children in this developmental group may…

  • Assume a leadership role with younger siblings in commemorating the life of the person who has died.
  • Have a special need to remember events and experiences that the family had with the person who died, especially if he or she had been a caretaker.
  • Have difficulty participating in public ritual because of concerns about displaying strong emotions and embarrassing themselves.

Moving On After a Death

Children in this developmental group may…

  • Find it difficult to move on with their own grieving and living, especially if they have been obliged or have felt obliged to take on the responsibility of caring for other family members.
  • Reconsider how their future plans impact on their family, for example, plans to move into their own apartment, go away to college, or relocate for a job.
  • Feel guilty about rebellious or defiant responses to parental authority that are typical normal development.
  • Mistakenly come to believe that somehow, through their lives or their behaviour they must “make up” for the dead.