5 Considerations When Supporting Your Teen After a Loss

Posted by on May 24, 2020

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Written by Mary Benedetti, MSW, RSW.

At some point most parents end up asking themselves: “What is going on with my kid?”. Filled with confusion and concern, they may wonder, “Is this the child I raised?”. These types of questions are even more likely to cross the mind of a parent of a teenager.

When your child’s behaviour changes there are many potential causes to consider.

One major contributor to behavioural and emotional changes that I commonly see in my work, as a therapist and social worker, is that of a loss.  For many, the word loss and the natural emotional response of grief are typically thought of as a response to death. At the same time, when trying to answer the question of: “what is going on with my child?”, I would invite you to consider how loss can come in many forms. 

Losses come with major life changes like a move, parent separation or divorce, injury, or the onset of a physical and/or mental illness. Teens also experience loss when a friendship ends or when cut off from their connection to a group they belonged to, like a team, club, or social circle. When a fire, natural disaster, or in our current circumstance, a pandemic occurs loss is sure to be found. 

In the context of COVID-19, we have all experienced some form of loss of what we had expected or hoped for during this time. The everyday experience of loss is being coupled with a fear of the unknown.

Understandably, many are feeling uncertain about the future as well as concerned for their well-being and that of others. How can I protect my health and that of my family, friends and community? When will social distancing end? How long will I be laid off for? Will my family make rent or the mortgage payment? What will our economy be like? How will the future unfold? 

All of these unknowns circle in our minds as we are faced with the knowledge that many lives have been lost.

The fear of losing the future we imagined for ourselves, is called anticipatory grief.

It is natural to grieve what we expected and hoped would be, while worrying about what could take place in the future. The effect can be a disruption to our sense of safety and stability. Perhaps, you have found yourself or your teen relying on different ways of coping, like staying distracted (I know I am not alone in increasing my screen time), trying to focus on the positive, or staying busy (closet cleaning anyone?). While all of these forms of coping have a valuable role to play in surviving a crisis, we can also use them as a way to avoid feeling grief, sadness, and worry.

It can feel especially counterintuitive to allow grief into our lives when the loss experienced does not take a form that is typically acknowledged in our society.

Take the students that are a part of this year’s grade 12 class, who are missing out on their grad trip, grad dance, and, perhaps even graduation ceremony; are they entitled to grieve what they are losing or is all this insignificant in the face of lives lost to COVID-19?

I would offer that you can have perspective and honour the lives lost in a tragic circumstance, without equating or discounting other experiences of loss. In my view, compassion can be stretched to cover loss in all its manifestations. For many reasons, moving through grief in a healthy way right now is a challenge. As much as you want to support your child in the face of loss, we know getting to the heart of the matter with a teen is not always easy.

Here are some ways to help: 

5 Considerations When Supporting Your Teen After a Loss 

It’s All About the Approach 

When preparing to start a conversation about an often minimized and sensitive topic, your approach is everything. The task of broaching a conversation about loss with a teen may feel like approaching a porcupine with their quills out. So, step one is showing that it is ok for your teen to lower their defenses. 

It helps to try to stay open-minded and curious. You are aiming at reducing tension by asking questions in a relaxed way. Even a teen that seems aloof, is still sensitive to their parent or caregiver’s emotional state.  It is as if they can smell fear, frustration and desperation.

That is why, I suggest taking time to reduce the pressure you are placing on yourself. Recall the instructions before a flight, caregivers need to put the oxygen mask on themselves first, so that they can then put the mask on their child. Investing in what calms you down and helps you to move through difficult times is worth it. At minimum, take some slow deep breaths. We know that what you role model counts in the long term, for more than what is said in a single conversation.

It can also help to remind yourself of other challenges your child has overcome in the past. Then get clear about your goal, which at this point is only to open up the conversation in a way that shows your interest in learning more and connecting. As this is your teen’s experience with loss, try to see yourself more as a consultant, than a director. 

Acknowledging the Loss

“Name it to tame it”, is a concept from Neuropsychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel (Author of The Whole-Brain Child) that is particularly helpful when it comes to supporting someone after a loss. This is because naming feelings can help us to access emotions, as well as reduce the intensity of what we feel. When you help your teen name a loss and the experience of grief, you help them make sense of what we are experiencing. 

You and your teen can then start to unpack those things that the person or thing they lost had contributed to their life. What are they now experiencing because of the loss? You will find that there may be secondary losses.

For example, the obvious loss that comes with an injury may be the loss of the ability to move freely and play a sport a teen once excelled in. The secondary losses are feeling disconnected from their former identity as an athlete, as well as missing the connection to team members, and a sense of direction in life. You can let your child know that you get that their loss is real and that grieving is messy and hard.

Navigating the Wall of “No”

When getting the “no, nothing’s wrong” or “no, I don’t want to talk” response, it can be hard to see that what might be behind the hard wall your teen puts up are soft, vulnerable emotions. Remember resistance to grieving is common. We avoid facing loss because we don’t want to live with the new reality we face post-loss. Thoughts like “if I had only…then this wouldn’t have happened” are typical. Feelings of guilt, regret, and shame often are part of why we feel stuck in a cycle of thinking of these “could have” or “should have” thoughts.

The hard truth is that being at odds with what is increases our suffering and can become a block to growth.

Hopefully, as you start to have more conversations about the loss, your teen may start expressing the vulnerable emotions behind denial and anger, such as sadness, anxiety, guilt or shame. If you and your teen feel stuck, there is help, and counselling may be a good next step to consider. 

The Winding Road to Acceptance

Grieving isn’t a straightforward process. Rather than being linear, it is a winding road – but not one you or your teen need to walk alone. Expect your teen to bounce from denial to bargaining, to sadness, then back to anger, to fear and maybe even to some form of acceptance  – all in no particular order. 

If your teen can be given the space and, ideally, the support, to feel the sensations and emotions their body is producing, acceptance can follow more naturally.  For some acceptance may come in pieces, for others a place of radical acceptance may be possible.

Radical Acceptance is fully accepting life as it is (now), and releasing bitterness and regret (as described in Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy). In whatever form it takes, acceptance offers a way to have power in the face of loss and uncertainty.

Looking towards the Future 

Even though we know that maturing requires gaining experiences, many of which are painful, it is still hard to watch a loved one grieve. The story of living with loss can include many lessons learned along the way. Together, you and your teen can reflect on how these hard-won learnings can be integrated into your child’s future. As your teen integrates their experiences and lessons learned, they can start taking meaningful steps towards a brighter future.

As a parent, you can encourage this opening-up to the future by being curious about what your teen cares about. Wonder with them about what they miss from their life before the loss. Is it a feeling of connection, a sense of self, the comfort of a routine, the joy of movement, accomplishment, or vitality, perhaps? How could they find a way to have these types of feelings through the means available to them now or in the near future?  For, the losses we experience come with us as we take steps to rebuild.

To imagine a new future is a brave act. You can stand alongside your child as they courageously find hope and a new vision of what their life can be. 

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