Parenting a teenager through their adolescent years can be one of life’s most rewarding experiences. Watching them assert their independence. Celebrating their successes. Helping them set goals. And, ultimately, witnessing them grow into the person they’ll be as an adult.
But these teen years can also be tough.
Inevitably, there are stumbles, failures and defeats, and your heart will break as they learn the lesson that life isn’t always easy or fair. Once it was enough to swoop in with a band-aid and a kiss to heal all of life’s hurts. But now it’s no longer enough – and at no time is this more true than when one of their friends dies.
A naturally difficult time
For teenagers, friendships are extremely important and losing a friend can feel like losing a close family member.
Whereas younger children struggle with the concept of someone dying, the implication of death sinks in more fully for teenagers. They’re more likely to identify with the death or the dying process, and seriously ponder their own mortality.
Like adolescence itself, teen grief has its own hallmark characteristics.
Teens are no longer children, but neither are they adults. With the exception of infancy, no developmental period is so filled with change as adolescence. Leaving the security of childhood, teens start the process of separating from their parents. It’s part of growing up. They’re learning who they are and developing their sense of self, which means they’re less likely to ask you for help – even when they’re in the throes of upset and confusion over the death of a friend.
At a time when they may benefit most from a parent’s wisdom and perspective, they’re also in the process of pulling away. While they are grieving, they’re also facing psychological and physiological pressures. While they may be starting to look like ‘men’ and ‘women’, they’re not. Physical development doesn’t equal emotional maturity. They still need support through the grieving process.
Helping your teen cope
When a teenager loses a friend, their grief can manifest itself in many different ways. Here are some things you can do to help them:
- Say something. Don’t let the fear of not knowing what to say keep you from saying anything at all – but steer clear of giving advice. It likely won’t be well received. Your teen will have a unique way of coping that may likely be very different to how you grieve. They’ll have their own personal pathway to healing. Your inclination may be to rush the process to help them feel better, but life doesn’t work that way. You can’t change things, but your love and support will go a long way toward helping your child heal.
- Be present in the silence. Though it’s important to speak with your teen when they’re dealing with loss, take care not to rush to fill silent moments with words. There may be times when your teen doesn’t want to talk at all – and that’s perfectly normal. But don’t take their silence as a cue to leave. Try giving them a hug, holding hands or offering a tissue. Being present amid silence can be extremely therapeutic. Just sitting quietly with them through the pain can speak volumes about how much you care.
- Ensure basic needs are met. Self care is extremely important for all of us, particularly during difficult times. Unfortunately, sleep and a proper diet are often forsaken during difficult times. Sleep recharges the brain and when teens don’t get enough sleep, it can affect their memory, mood and judgement. And without proper nutrition, they tire more easily and can’t function optimally. Needless to say, when a friend dies, it can be a stressful experience. But being physically healthy can help them cope better with the emotional upheaval.
- Encourage connection with friends. Teens are more apt to seek solace with other teens. It’s no surprise that they like to congregate and this can be a healthy way for them to cope as well. Encourage your teen to invite a few friends over, and give them the space and time to express their hurt and pain together. The simple gesture of pulling together a circle of friends can help your teen open up and express feelings that may otherwise remain unspoken.
- Ride the emotional rollercoaster. Most teens have little experience with death and may not know how to ask for help. After a friend dies, they’re faced with the reality of death and their own mortality. They may not know how to verbally express their hurt and pain, so their grief may come out in the form of disbelief, angry outbursts, physical altercations, or risky and dangerous behaviours. Though it’s normal for a teen to experience a wide range of emotions following the death of a friend, be on the lookout for unhealthy coping patterns. In time, their emotions should begin to level out
- Honour memories. Remembering and honouring the friend who died by keeping photos or special trinkets can be helpful to your teen. Encourage them to think of innovative ways to honour their friend’s life. Is there a cause or event their friend was passionate about that they can contribute to? Doing something good when one feels helpless can promote healthy coping.
Seeking extra help
Being a parent doesn’t mean you automatically have all the answers. Remember all those questions when they were young? “Why is the sky blue?” “How does the Tooth Fairy work?” You probably didn’t have all the answers then – and you likely won’t have all the answers now your child is a teenager.
There are lots of reasons why healthy grieving can be especially difficult for teenagers. Some grieving teens may even behave in ways that seem inappropriate or frightening, so be on the lookout for:
- Symptoms of chronic depression, sleeping difficulties, restlessness and low self esteem
- Academic failure or indifference to school-related activities
- Deterioration of relationships with family and friends
- Risk-taking behaviours, such as drug and alcohol abuse, or fighting
- Denying pain while at the same time acting overly strong and mature.
If your teenager is having a hard time with their loss, explore the range of services available in your community. School counsellors, support groups and therapists are good resources for some young people, while others may just need a little more time and attention from caring adults.
Peer support groups are also one of the best ways to help grieving teens heal. In these groups, they can connect with other teens who have experienced a loss. They’re encouraged to tell their stories as much, and as often, as they like. In this setting, most will be willing to acknowledge that death has resulted in their life being changed forever.
The important thing is that you help your grieving teen find safe and nurturing outlets during this difficult time.
Hopefully, you’ll never have to put these strategies to use. But it’s important to be prepared, so that you can provide support if your teen does experience the death of a friend.
When a friend dies, it’s life changing. However, in tragedy, beauty can emerge – and once the pain subsides, your teen may look back and be extremely grateful that you were there each step of the way.
Above all, stay calm, patient, respectful and connected with your teenager as they grieve and reassure them that time heals.
Want to know more?
For more information about helping teenagers cope with grief, please contact the Walter Carter Funerals team by emailing [email protected].