Tips for Supporting Teenagers through Grief

Tips for Supporting Teenagers through Grief

The death of a loved one is one of the most difficult experiences a person can go through, and it’s tragic that teenagers are faced with that pain. Unfortunately, 1 in 20 Australian children will experience the death of a parent before they turn 18 – many Australian teenagers will also experience the death of a sibling or guardian.

If you are the parent or guardian of a teenager who has recently lost a loved one, then you have come to the right place. You too are dealing with grief. Supporting your teenager starts with ensuring that you are properly supported, so please remember to practice self-care.

Telling a Teenager their Parent, Guardian, or Sibling has Died

Telling a teenager that someone they love has died is extremely difficult. There is no method of sharing this news that will lessen the pain of hearing it. However, there are things you can do to help support your teenage child so they can begin their grieving process in a healthy way.

  • Be prompt: Although informing a teenager of a death is difficult, it shouldn’t be delayed. The sooner they know, the sooner the healing process can begin.
  • Create a safe space: Make sure your teenager is in a place they feel comfortable in when you tell them, they need to feel able to react however they want. It’s also a good idea to have another person in the room with you if their presence will bring comfort to your teenager and to you.
  • Be straightforward: We often use euphemisms terms like “passed away” when referring to death as it can be uncomfortable to talk about it in a direct way. Euphemisms don’t soften the news, they actually make it more difficult to comprehend. Direct language helps remove the stigmas that surround death, making it easier to talk about for both you and your child.
  • Be open: Don’t hide details about the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one from your teenager, this will make them think that they can’t talk to you about the death. Rather, establish open lines of communication by answering the questions you can, being honest when you don’t know the answer, and telling them that they can always come to you if they need to talk. Be open about your own feelings as it will help your teenager become aware of and feel comfortable with their feelings.

Teenagers react differently to the news of a loved one’s death: some cry, some ask questions, and some don’t appear to have any reaction at all. This is all okay. There is no one way, or correct way, to react when being told about the death of a parent, guardian, or sibling. Throughout the conversation, reinforce that they are safe, you are safe, and you are there to help them through their grief.

For more information on how to support your teenager while informing them of the death of a loved one, download our brochure on the topic.

Supporting a Teenager Through the Grieving Process

Teenagers who have lost someone close to them experience a broad range of emotions, thoughts, physical reactions, and behaviours associated with grief after the death. These reactions aren’t confined to the days and months following the death, they will continue to appear even after years.

Teenagers may express grief differently to adults, they may slip into and out of grief, so they’ll appear to be coping some days but really struggle on others. Their expression of grief can be influenced by age, family situation, relationship with the deceased, and how expected or unexpected the death was.

The task of supporting your teenager through their grief is not easy but learning more about and understanding grief in adolescents will help you. Here are some things you need to know:

  • Understanding death: Teenagers, generally speaking, are capable of abstract thinking and can understand death in a more adult way than younger children. They know that death is universal, irreversible, and inevitable. You don’t need to shield them from the realities of death, they are able to understand it.
  • Typical feelings: Your teenager will experience a large range of emotions, including (but not limited to) fear, anger, vulnerability, sadness, shock, longing, guilt, anxiety, and/or loneliness. They are also likely to experience unexpected mood changes. Common behaviours include crying, social withdrawal, restless hyperactivity, absent-mindedness, acting out, and avoidance.
  • Physical reactions: Grief isn’t a purely emotional experience; it also causes physical reactions. In teenagers, it’s common to feel a tightness in the chest, hollowness in the stomach, dry mouth, shortness of breath, oversensitivity to noise, weakness in muscles, fatigue, appetite disturbances, and weight change. Sleep disturbances are also common, which may result in them requesting to sleep with a surviving parent or loved one for comfort, despite this seeming age inappropriate.
  • Coping mechanisms: There are a range of common coping mechanisms that teenagers often engage in, including favouring talking with adults and peers outside the family, acting with bravado as if they’re unaffected, repressing their emotions, taking on more responsibilities, or engaging in risk-taking behaviour.

To support your teenager through their grieving process, just remember that communication is key! It’s important to create a space for your teen to ask questions, discuss their feelings, and open up about their concerns. Although you may not know the answer to all their questions or what the ‘right’ thing to say is, this isn’t usually what your teenager needs – what they need is to sense that you are willing to ‘feel with them’ in this difficult period rather than jump straight into problem-solving mode.

To learn more about what to expect during the grieving process, information on how to support your teenager in the first year following a death, and how to support them through anniversaries, download our brochures on these topics.

Accessing Outside Support for a Grieving Teenager

While supporting a teenager through their grieving process, it’s important to ensure you are also supported and know that you aren’t alone. There is a community of people in Australia who understand what you are going through as they’ve experiences similar tragedy. Our mission at Feel the Magic is to ensure that families like yours are supported and have access to all the resources needed to heal.

If you want more resources to help navigate this difficult period, please explore our grief resource hub. If you’d be interested in connected your teenager and yourself to a community of people who understand you, and to mentors who can teach you about grief and give you the tools to heal, then please look into our free camps. Finally, if you need immediate mental health support for you or your teenager, please contact a helpline.

7 Things to Consider While Helping Children Deal with Loss 

From telling a child about the death of a person close to them, to dealing with their grief reactions, and finally helping them access support, there are so many things to consider while helping children deal with the death of a loved one. Whilst there are several considerations, they may vary depending on your child’s developmental age. You can find age specific advice on various topics in our Grief Resource Hub.  

  1. Remember that every child reacts differently 

How children cope with loss depends on various factors, including their developmental age, personality, the support they receive, and the relationship to their lost loved one. Whether a child cries, asks questions or doesn’t react at all, it is important to make sure they are listened to and comforted.  

It may be worthwhile to consider the benefits of a bereavement program for your child to normalise their grief reactions, help them grieve in a healthy way, and for them to feel comforted by a community. It is also important to also give your child time to heal from the loss. Grief is a process that happens over time, and each grief journey is different.  

  1. Children might need help to express their feelings 

Children can have big feelings when a loved one dies, but they don’t always have the words to express these feelings, often manifesting into feelings of frustration and confusion. It may be a good idea to start by helping them identify how they are feeling and letting them know that their feelings are normal. By labelling some of your own feelings it may make it easier for your child to share theirs.  

Children might not always feel like talking about their feelings when a loved one dies, and they may express their feelings through play. For example, drawing, music and puppet play can help children express strong feelings like sadness. Furthermore, Feel the Magic’s bereavement programs offer grieving children the opportunity to learn skills and tools to express their feelings about a death in a healthy way. 

  1. Try to keep to a routine, whilst maintaining expectations.  

Maintaining normal routines and boundaries is a way that might help a grieving child feel secure and have a sense of safety. Children find great comfort in routines, and when a child’s world is turned upside down through loss, it is important to provide consistency wherever possible. Try to keep things as familiar as possible, such as school, extracurricular activities, pets and household possessions. 

Whilst it is important to try and be consistent with rules and routines, it is important to make sure there is some flexibility in managing expectations. Bereaved children experience significant changes in their lives, so it is important to make sure they feel prepared for these changes. Expectations provide children with a great deal of comfort. It may be helpful to manage your child’s expectations for the memorial/funeral, changes to the family unit and any other adjustments to their daily lives. 

  1. Consider how grief affects children in various domains 
  • Cognitive Domain – They may have trouble concentrating and/or making decisions. They might experience nightmares, a lack of motivation, or a decline in school performance. 
  • Emotional Domain – Bereaved children tend to go in and out of the grief process. They might express elevated anxiety about the safety of others. 
  • Physical Domain – Bereaved children may feel sick more often, experience headaches, stomach aches, tiredness, lack of energy or hyperactivity. There might also be changes in their eating habits and sleeping patterns. 
  • Spiritual Domain – Grieving children may be curious about death and dying and may ask a lot of questions. They might start to question why this happened and where their loved one is now. 
  • Social Domain – Children that are grieving may become more dependent or clingy, or they might withdraw. They might also attempt to take on the role of their loved one who has died. 
  • Behavioural Domain – Bereaved children might show more challenging or demanding behaviours as well as regressions in their behaviours (such as bed wetting).  
     
  1. Don’t use euphemisms  

Children tend to be very literal and the use of euphemisms may leave a child feeling anxious, confused or scared. It may even lead them to believe the deceased will come back and that death is not permanent. It is important to avoid phrases such as “passed away”, “gone away”, “gone to sleep” and “lost”. Check out our blog post for more information on how to teach children about death. 

  1.   Help your child remember their lost loved one 

In the days, weeks, months and even years ahead, encourage your child to find ways that will help them remember their loved one that died. Remembering is part of grieving and part of healing. This can be as simple as sharing memories of the person who died or bringing up the name of the person who died so your child knows it is not taboo to talk about and remember that person. Children may also want to draw pictures, write down stories, create a memory box, write poems, or create their own memorial.  

  1. There is support available 

Giving your child a sense of comfort, reassurance, safety, love and care is extremely important. No matter what grief your child is facing, outside resources and additional support are highly recommended. Whilst you cannot protect your child from the pain of loss, you can help make sure they build healthy coping skills. Consider the benefit of support groups, bereavement programs and counselling to support grieving children.  

Child grief support

Supporting your child through the changes brought by death

Each year in Australia, around 1 in 20 children will experience the death of a parent or sibling prior to the age of 18*. Despite being so common, too many bereaved children are not accessing the vital child support that they need to grow into adulthood empowered with choice, opportunity, and personal resources.

Child support after death in Australia should enable bereaved children to live a life in which they realise their full potential, rather than feeling helpless, stigmatised, and isolated. The death of a loved one will alter their daily lives, however there are various ways to offer children and teens support after death to help them through these changes.

Supporting a child immediately after death

The initial step in supporting a bereaved child immediately after death is to create a safe space.

When talking to your child about the death of a loved one, it is important to be prompt, honest and straight forward. Use care and be direct, but also give your child a moment to take in your words. Be sure to provide your child with accurate, age-appropriate information, and avoid using vague messages as these will easily confuse a child when explaining death (such as “gone to sleep” or “gone away).

Your child may need you to explain what death means in simple terms. You may not have all the answers and that is okay. The key is to establish and open the lines of communication. It is crucial that you encourage your child to express their thoughts and feelings in the days, weeks, and months following the loss and beyond. If your child needs you to explain death, talk in terms of the body not working anymore. It is also important that they know that death is permanent and happens to everyone at some point. You might say, “Dead means the person’s body stops working. When someone is dead it can’t be fixed, and they can’t come back.”

No matter how your child reacts to the death of a loved one, comfort them, offer them hugs, and keep them close. Some children will cry, some will ask questions, and others will seem to not react at all. Reassure them that the death of their loved one is not their fault. Reinforce that they are cared for and loved, and they are safe, and you are safe.

The death of a loved one will likely mean that your child must cope with changes in their routine. Let your child know what will happen next and be clear about any new arrangements that have been made. Visual schedules can also help younger children adjust to new routines. Discuss any mourning rituals, such as the memorial service and the funeral with your child. Explain ahead of time what will happen at these ceremonies and offer your child a role (such as reading a poem or sharing a memory). It is important to allow your child to decide whether they would like to take part in these rituals.

Adapting to life after the death of a loved one

Bereaved people, including children, often find it difficult to manage the changes in their lives following the death of a loved one. When the funeral and/or memorial service is done, and people go back to work and school, it can be a difficult time for children because understandably everything feels different. It is important to support your child to move forward and create a safe environment for them to engage in a healthy grieving process.

Create a safe space for your child to ask questions, discuss their feelings, and open up about their concerns after the death of their loved one. Maintaining continuity and your child’s normal routines at home, at school, in sports and in the community will be helpful. Engaging with daily responsibilities and pastimes is important for your child’s health and enables them to move forward in their grieving process. Creating opportunities to remember the deceased person through rituals, remembrance activities, or even making a memory box may help them process their emotions.

Supporting a child through anniversaries and holidays

Certain dates, such as the anniversary of the loss, birthdays, and holidays, may heighten children’s grief as they are reminders of their loss. It is important to normalise the fact that such dates may evoke powerful memories and feelings surrounding a loved one’s death. Even though it is difficult to anticipate how your child will feel on these dates, it is best to prepare them in case they need extra support and care.

Together with your child, they may benefit from scheduling social activities and making plans for these days as a family. Making plans is a good way to remind a bereaved child that they are not alone in their grief. Another way to support your child through difficult times is to encourage reflection, remembrance, and reminiscing. You may also want to mark this day with a new tradition, such as cooking a meal that the deceased person enjoyed, lighting a candle, or giving to a cause. Lastly, offer your child time to discuss what they are feeling and what they need from you on these significant, and often difficult dates.

Seeking support for yourself and your child

In Australia, there are a range of resources and support available for both you and your child.

  • Feel the Magic provide grief education programs and camps for children aged 7 to 17 who have experienced the death of a parent, guardian, or sibling.
  • Click here to access Feel the Magic’s Grief Resource Hub which contains information to help you through a range of challenges.
  • When someone dies, it can be hard to know who you’re supposed to tell. Click here to be directed to Services Australia.
  • Read about how to cope financially after losing your partner. If you need financial support, click here to be directed to Services Australia.
  • Talk with your doctor or local community health centre if you or your child require professional support or counselling services.
  • Kids Helpline is Australia’s only free, confidential 24/7 online and phone counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25.
  • Beyond Blue provides confidential counselling services.
  • Griefline provides telephone and online counselling services.
  • Headspace supports young people (12 to 25 years) who are going through a difficult time.
  • Lifeline is a 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention service.
  • Solace provides grief support for those grieving the death of their partner.
  • Postvention Australia and StandBy support people bereaved by suicide.

* 4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, Sep 2010, Parental Divorce or Death During Childhood