Helping Your High Schooler Cope with Loss

Though a teenager’s understanding of death and grief may be similar to that of an adult, it is important to remember that they are not yet adults. The teen years are often characterized by an internal battle between dependence and independence when it comes to parent-child relationships, and coping with the loss of a loved one is no different. Your teen may be struggling to cope independently in the way he or she thinks adults “should” cope, but also have a desire to be comforted in a child-like way.

Developmental Understanding

Teens understand the finality and universality of death, and they may begin to sense their own mortality and impending death as a result. This is especially common in instances where a friend or family member committed suicide or died due to an unexpected circumstance (e.g. car accident, prescription pill overdose, alcohol poisoning). Guilt and self-blame are still likely to be present, especially if your teen perceives their last interaction with the deceased to have been limited or negative in some way. Your teen will think about the milestones the deceased will miss out on in their life and consider the changed meaning of such events. They are likely to feel a strong desire to cope independently and seem “strong” or unaffected for the sake of others. However, an internal conflict is typically present, because a desire to be held and comforted like a small child will also be realized. Teens may feel a need to be “in control” of their feelings, behaviors and the situation as a whole, even without fully understanding what is within the limits of their control or not. Spirituality may be used as a coping mechanism.

Emotions and Behaviors

Once again, feelings of shock, sadness, confusion, fear, anxiousness, guilt or worry may be present. Teens are likely to feel very vulnerable because of the internal struggles they are already experiencing in regards to dependence vs. independence from caregivers, which may result in “testing” one’s mortality with risky behaviors such as drinking, drug use or reckless driving in an attempt to find the “line” between safety and death. This is more likely to occur after the death of a friend, whether by accident or suicide. Teens tend to be highly self-conscious about being different from peers, so denial is common in an effort to fit in and ignore emotional distress or fears. Teens can become skilled at hiding their feelings of grief and acting as though the death never occurred if they do not have a safe outlet for discussion. Anger and aggression may also occur, as well as general impulsivity and irritability in daily interactions, resulting in greater incidents of fighting, yelling or arguing. A decline in concentration and subsequent drop in grades and apathy around academics may be present. Changes in sleeping and eating patterns, and even changes in peer groups may occur, as your teen tries to come to terms with what the loss of a loved one means in regards to their own identity and future. Withdrawal and isolation are common while teens attempt to make sense of their needs following the loss of a loved one.

How to Provide Support

Encourage your teen to express his or her feelings through traditional and creative outlets, such as drawing, singing, journaling or talking. However, do not push your teenager to talk; allow some hidden feelings to empower your teen’s sense of independence. If you are concerned about your teen’s physical safety, you will need to be more forceful in opening the lines of discussion, possibly inviting the help of a mental health professional. In instances of suicide by a loved one, your teen is more likely to consider suicide or reckless behavior as an option for their own grief process, so monitor any high risk behaviors like drinking or drug use closely. Invite your teen to talk with you often, and maintain the role of listener and supporter when they choose to take you up on your offer. Respond to questions truthfully, and be okay with sharing your own hurt feelings and dilemmas about the grieving process. Give your teen the opportunity to attend a peer support group, and allow him or her to make decisions regarding how and when they will be involved in the mourning process; remain open to alternative forms of coping other than attending a funeral, such as writing a song, creating a video or building a memorial. Though most teens appear to put up emotional guards, they are often actually crying out for someone to understand them internally; for this reason, public ways of expressing grief may be helpful (e.g. building a memorial). When your teen does display regressive behaviors and wants to be comforted in a more child-like manner, oblige this mood and offer physical comfort.



About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.