Supporting a Bereaved Teenager

Advice for those caring for and supporting a teen who is grieving for a loved one

Last updated: 10 November 2016

Helping teenagers deal with grief presents its own set of challenges. Whether they have lost a friend, parent, grandparent, or other family member, teenagers have their own ways of coping with grief that require care and understanding.

Unlike younger bereaved children, most teenagers understand what death is and what it means when someone dies. In this way, their understanding is similar to that of an adult. It is the way they express their grief that often differs.

A difficult time of life

The teenage years of life rarely go completely smoothly. For teens facing social pressures, heightened emotions, school stress and perhaps their first romantic relationships, life is confusing and challenging at the best of times.

This means that adolescents often have a particularly difficult time dealing with grief. With so many other ups and downs and important problems, the number of emotions they feel can be overwhelming. When supporting a teenager going through grief, remember that they may have many other problems that are also upsetting them.

This may also be the first time that they are experiencing death. This can have a profound effect on a teen, as they begin to realize their own mortality and how fragile life can be. Ultimately, losing someone can make it feel as though their childhood has come to an end; adulthood is often forced upon them, especially if it is a parent or guardian who has passed away.

Changes in behavior

Teens may have trouble talking openly about how they are feeling, but often their behavior changes after a bereavement. These changes can include:

  • Becoming more withdrawn and spending more and more time alone.
  • Caring less about schoolwork and other commitments, because they feel there is no point anymore.
  • Or, equally, working extra hard at school in order to protect a grieving parent or family member from further stress and upset.
  • Spending more time with friends, going out more and for longer periods of time in order to distract themselves.
  • Taking on the role of a parent who has passed away, by doing household chores or taking on new responsibilities.
  • Not crying or showing any emotions, seeming cold and unaffected.

These types of behavior are quite normal for most adolescents experiencing grief. They may distance themselves from adults and seem unaffected. This may be because they are having trouble expressing their emotions, they want to avoid talking about the loss, or because they do not want to cry in front of grieving family members for fear of making them more upset.

In time, this behavior should fade and they may start talking more openly about the loss and their feelings. In the meantime, continue to offer support if needed. If you are worried that they are not coping well, if they are unable to do daily tasks such as washing and dressing, or if they seem to be experiencing depression, seek help for them through a counselor or bereavement support organization.

Sometimes teens are prone to more destructive behavior. This can include:

  • Risk-taking, such as driving too fast or committing minor crimes, in order to regain a sense of control.
  • Drinking alcohol excessively or taking drugs to numb emotional pain.
  • Self-harming from feelings of guilt or self-loathing.

If you are caring for a teenager who is acting in these ways, it is essential to offer them help immediately. You may want to contact a grief counselor who specializes in working with teenagers and young adults. If you think they might hurt themselves or others, contact a bereavement organization immediately.

Ways to help

It can sometimes feel impossible to get a teenager to open up about how they are feeling even when they are not experiencing grief. However, you may be able to help them in the following ways:

  • Understand that their grief is important. Teenagers might feel ignored and undervalued as the needs of younger children and other relatives take over. Be sure to let them know that their grief matters as much as anyone’s and that you are there to listen if they need it.
  • Respect their way of grieving. Unless their behavior becomes self-destructive or dangerous, try to let them grieve in the best way for them. If they need time alone, don’t force them to be around people. If they enjoy being around friends, don’t stop them from socializing.
  • Be patient. They may reject your first attempts at getting them to grieve openly. They might never open up to you about their feelings, but knowing that they can if they need to is important.
  • Don’t assume anything about how they are feeling. Even losing someone who they weren’t particularly close to can deeply affect a teen. They may not be showing the true extent of their emotions, so don’t assume that they are not grieving.
  • Let them know you will look after them. Although they would never admit it, teenagers still want to know that there is someone to take care of them, someone to turn to if they need help. Even if you don’t tell them this directly, by offering practical support you will let them know that you are there to care for them.
  • Try to boost their self-esteem. One side effect of grief in teens is a feeling of low self-worth. Try to do activities with them that they are good at, or praise them when they do something well, to let them know that they are valued and loved.
  • Maintain boundaries and discipline. Some teens can begin acting out in response to grief. You should take it into consideration that they are grieving. For example, you may forgive them coming home slightly late, or falling behind on their chores. However, you should try to not let major rule-breaking or dangerous behavior be ignored, particularly if their safety is at risk.

Remember that teens often feel more comfortable talking to people of their own age and they may choose to open up to a friend rather than you. Don’t take this personally. They have to grieve in the way that is best for them.

It may be helpful for them to take part in a teen bereavement support group or see a counselor specializing in helping teenagers. You can talk to a bereavement organization for more information on local groups, counselors and other available support.