Parents have an instinct to shield their children from the hardships of life. It’s natural: protecting children is what parents do. But parents know they can’t – and shouldn’t – sequester their children in a protective bubble until they’re eighteen. That doesn’t help anyone. Kids need to learn hard lessons, understand how to cope with adversity, and develop the emotional resiliency necessary to stay balanced through the ups and downs of life.
That’s how they become adults.
It’s heartbreaking. But it is necessary.
Because the fact is that kids do face adversity. And some of them – far too early in life – face one of the most challenging things any of us face in life: the loss of a loved one. When kids lose a loved one, they grieve. When they lose a parent, it can be extremely difficult.
These teens need help working through their grief and loss. They don’t have the perspective, experience, and coping skills adults have.
We can help teens by understanding the kinds of loss they might face and what to look for if they’re having a hard time processing their emotions.
Losing A Parent
Teens may lose a parent in many ways. No matter how it happens, though, each leads to a fundamental restructuring of their physical, emotional, and spiritual world. Here are the three common ways teens lose a parent:
- Illness or Injury. A parent may contract and succumb to a terminal illness such as cancer. They may also have a car accident, a workplace accident, or some other type of unintended circumstance that causes their death.
- Violent Death. A parent may be killed by another person, as the victim of or a bystander present at the scene of a crime, for instance. Parents in law enforcement or the military may also meet a violent death in the line of duty. Also, a parent may commit suicide or suffer a lethal drug overdose.
- Abandonment. When a parent leaves a child and never returns, cuts off all contact, and forgoes all parenting responsibility, the child will often experience this loss as a death, because that’s what it feels like to them: a person who was once there is no longer there, and there is nothing in their power they can do to bring them back.
Teens who experience loss due to the death of a parent are in a vulnerable place. Even if they appear, on the surface, to handle their grief and sadness without breaking down completely, they’re still hurting inside. They need the help of the adults around them to process their emotions, put them in perspective, and start the process of putting the pieces of their lives back together.
Grieving Teens: Increased Risk of Mental Health Disorders
When a teen loses a parent, the adults in their life need to watch what they do rather than listen to what they say. It’s common for teens to downplay, deny, or try to stifle emotions that are too big for them to handle. The adults around them cannot let this happen, because the emotions don’t go anywhere until they are processed properly. Evidence shows that teens who experience the sudden and early loss of a parent are at increased risk of social isolation, learning problems, and developing significant mental health issues. The issues below are listed in order of most common to least common for teens who suffer the loss of a parent:
- Bipolar Disorder
- Alcohol and/or Substance Use Disorder
- Personality Disorders
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorders
- Depressive Disorders
The signs of unresolved grief in a teenager include but are not limited to the following:
- Increased anger or irritability
- Apathy and loss of interest in activities they previously loved
- Social isolation
- Obsession over what, why, and how their parent died
- Continuous missing and feeling of loss related to the departed parent
- Hyper-alertness and anxiety
- Emotional overreactions to typical daily situations
- Alcohol or substance use
- Self-harming behavior
- Suicidal ideation
IMPORTANT: If your teen talks about suicide, do not ignore it. If you think your teen is an imminent danger to themselves or others, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Line (800-273-8255) immediately.
Grieving Teens: Treatment Works
If your teen or a teenager you know suffers the loss of a parent and shows signs of unresolved grief, it’s important to get them help. They need the caring support of a loving family first and foremost, but if the symptoms of their grief persist, they may need professional support.
Working through emotions associated with loss and grief with a licensed therapist or counselor can help prevent the onset of mental health disorders. If a mental disorder develops, then treatment can help teens manage the symptoms of the disorder and mitigate its most disrupting elements. The latest evidence shows that effective treatment for grief and loss includes an individualized, comprehensive combination of psychotherapy, medication (if needed), and social support.
For teens whose symptoms are more intense and longer lasting, parents should consider residential treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, or partial hospitalization treatment: the benefits of early intervention cannot be overstated: the sooner you get them help, the more likely they are to process their grief in productive ways, and start the journey back to balance, health and well-being.
EVOLVE HELPS TEENS STRUGGLING WITH GRIEF AND LOSS. CALL US TODAY AT 1-800-665-4769 TO FIND OUT HOW WE CAN HELP YOUR TEEN IN THEIR TIME OF NEED.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.