Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How Parents Can Help a Teen Through a Loss

by Nyaka Niilampti

Many young people have had limited experiences with death. Typically it comes in the form of the loss of a grandparent or an older family member. Less frequently, it comes in the form of the loss of a peer, which often results in complicated emotions for both teens and their parents.

The loss of a friend, classmate, or peer can result in a loss of the sense of safety for young people. Despite what we know about the stages of grieving, the processing of grief is a highly individual experience, and each child or teen will deal with it in his or her own way.

There are a number of common reactions to loss including sadness, panic and anxiety, a fear of death, denial, guilt, shame, anger, poor concentration and confusion. There are also a number of ways parents can offer assistance following a loss. Here are a few suggestions for how parents can help:

Be available. It is common to be uncomfortable talking about death or loss. Even with that discomfort, make sure that your child is aware that you will be open to that conversation. Letting them know that you are available for questions, conversations, or simply silence will be encouraging. Some children will need to process their grief by talking, while others process their grief differently. Send a note, or write a card, both right after the event as well as after some time has passed to let them know the option is still open. Communicating your availability will help them be more comfortable approaching you when that time comes.

Encourage them to communicate with their friends. Some adolescents may be uncomfortable reaching out to adults. Communication with peers and friends may provide an additional and necessary support, particularly those in the same community and teens may be more able to share their emotions with peers than with adults.

Listen. Allow them to tell their stories, including their favorite memories of that person. Use open questions or prompt them with, “Tell me about…” Ask what they would like to remember most about the person they have lost.

Create a ritual. A memorial service is an important ritual that helps families and individuals grieve a loss. There can be other, less formal rituals that help young people grieve the loss. Encourage and allow them to participate in rituals or find their own way to say goodbye. This may include doing something individually or with a group.

Be supportive and patient. Don’t try to “fix” the situation or offer reassurance that this will not happen again. Talk openly and honestly with them, then validate their experience. Encourage them to share their feelings, but don’t push them. If you have had similar experiences, share those; however, keep in mind that even with similar experiences, it is impossible to know exactly how they may feel. Let them know there is no “right way” to grieve the loss, and that the difficulty they may be experiencing is normal. Encourage them to be patient with themselves and to take time to heal.

Keep an eye out for drastic changes. Significant changes in behavior patterns, eating, or sleeping, may be indicators that they are not coping well with the loss, and may be in need of additional support.

Encourage self care. While it may seem simple, encourage them to do the necessary daily tasks and activities. Eating and sleeping on as much of a “normal” schedule as possible will help them feel more secure.

With time and support, most children and teens will cope with and process the death of a classmate or peer and resume their regular activities. However, be open to the possibility that your child may need additional support to help them process this loss. If you notice they are not able to cope with their daily activities, isolating themselves from friends and family, or other significant noticeable changes, suggest that they speak with a professional as a means of gaining additional support.

Editor's Note: Nyaka Niilampti is a psychologist at Southeast Psych in Charlotte. She has a Ph.D. from Temple University, a master's in sports psychology from UNC-Chapel Hill, and a bachelor's degree from Princeton. Before coming to Southeast Psych, she has worked in university counseling centers, secondary schools, and community mental health centers.