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.