It may come as a surprise, but teens’ grief can look quite different from the way adults mourn. Obviously, grieving can stem from the death of a parent, grandparent or sibling, but other causes could be the loss of family structure from divorce or the incarceration of a parent. Or, perhaps a friend has moved away or a beloved pet has passed away.
Signs of grief
Actually, teens may sometimes grieve better than adults.
“Children feel whatever they are feeling in that moment and go right back to playing and laughing after,” says Christina Dekkar, counseling resource leader of TrustBridge Health in West Palm Beach, the parent of Hospice of Palm Beach County.
With grief, it’s normal to see a change in sleep, appetite, mood, behavior, school performance and concentration, says Kerry DeBay, chief program officer in Palm Beach County for The Children's Healing Institute in West Palm Beach. There is no set time for how long is too long. However, the absence of these signs doesn’t mean they aren’t grieving.
“Just because you can’t see it on the outside doesn’t mean it’s not happening on the inside,” DeBay says.
Based on children’s stages of development, they may not know how best to articulate their feelings or even be aware of what they might be feeling, says Shellie Solomon, president of Children of Inmates based in nearby Broward County.
“If your child is displaying self-destructive or maladaptive behaviors, such as threats to hurt themselves/others or prolonged periods of isolation and withdrawal from peers and family, then you may need to consult a mental health provider for further assessment and possible treatment recommendations,” she says.
Additional signs your grieving teen may need bereavement counseling include nightmares, suicidal thoughts, prolonged denial, inability to return to routine, risk taking, self-destructive behaviors and obsessive thoughts, Dekkar says.
“And that is just touching the surface,” she says.
Ways to help
It’s important for teens to understand what they’re experiencing is normal. DeBay suggests parents and caregivers try to:
- Listen: Allow teens to share their thoughts and stories without judgment.
- Allow them their feelings: Don’t try to talk them out of feeling sad, angry or guilty. Teens need to know all feelings are OK.
- Find ways to express their feelings: Help them recognize, learn and practice safe ways to let their feelings out.
- Be a role model: Teens will learn grief is OK if adults share and express their own feelings in a healthy manner.
The morning Sara Nakashian’s dad died in the fall after a long struggle with cancer, her 11-year-old daughter heard the news as she was arriving at school. Nakashian let her go to classes but communicated with Palm Beach County teachers to ensure she was doing OK.
“When I picked her up from school, we hugged a lot and went to hang out with close friends,” Nakashian says. “Lots of cards and games were played over the months.”
Where to turn
- Bridging Hope of The Children’s Healing Institute can conduct assessments, provide education and connect families to resources within their community specific to a child’s developmental age. Call 561-687-8115.
- Children of Inmates, based in Hallandale Beach, identifies and links children in need of support to appropriate organizations and services. They strengthen bonds between children, caregivers and incarcerated parent(s) when appropriate through support groups and letter-writing nights. Call 888-757-5439.
- TrustBridge Bereavement Centers offer services to families and friends of Hospice of Palm Beach patients, as well as to the community at large. Options include school support groups, family fun events and helping grieving families connect to see it’s OK to laugh and have fun again. Examples include the annual bereavement Camp Good Grief for teens. Call 561-227-5175.
• Kerry DeBay, chief program officer, Palm Beach County, The Children's Healing Institute
• Shellie Solomon, president, Children of Inmates
• Christina Dekkar, Counseling Resource leader, TrustBridge Health