Our teenagers get to deal, again, with issues we hoped they wouldn’t see until they were adults–sudden trauma, injury, and death. Teenagers are different, and parents need to know how to help them.
Most of us have heard about the 5 stages of grief that adults travel through, from denial to acceptance. The teenage brain is very different than the adult brain, and these stages don’t necessarily fit. Their journey through shock and grief is more individual and variable, with side trips and dangerous pitfalls.
Unfortunately, they sometimes travel this journey alone, as their parents are themselves derailed by shock and grief.
They travel it when their brains are in transition, when their impulse control is slim and they have trouble seeing into the future, where the consequences of their actions reside.
They choose their path at a time when they are struggling to achieve independence from their parents and control over their own lives, and they feel the need to find their own identity and act.
They will need watching.
Our children do not expect to have to deal with grief, so the first, most common reaction is shock, and then denial. But the teenaged brain is not the adult brain. They do not travel a straight path from there through anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, as an adult might.
Some of Those Side Paths:
- They can feel excited to be in a real life drama, and enjoy being the center of attention. Then they feel guilty because they were excited and, for a moment, happy.
- They can feel like it was their fault: they just said those horrible things the other day! The shooting happened because they wished it! They didn’t mean it! Children are not always rational.
- They can explode or become agressive, unable to control the powerful, overwhelming emotions churning inside them. Adults know that they will feel better in time; children live in the now, with no hope of feeling better.
- When the excitement fades, they may do things to rekindle the show. Maybe if I drink too much or swallow some pills I will be the center of attention again? Maybe my parents will notice something other than their own grief? And why be good anyway if all it gets you is pain?
- They can sometimes become fascinated with death–in it they see the solution to all of their own problems. Could they be strong enough, or brave enough, to end their own lives? They might try some exciting, near death “games” just to see how it feels, or to test themselves. Death is contagious.
- They frequently feel isolated and alone. Their grief cuts them off from others, making them different right at the age when they most want to fit in. They may refuse to admit they hurt at all because they don’t want to be different, or seen as weak.
- They may feel the need to do something to help the situation. Their parents are suffering; maybe if they lock down their own grief they can fix everything, make their parents feel better?
Many of these side paths are not likely to give you the happy, healthy child you desire.
What is a parent to do?
First, pay attention. Don’t assume they are fine – poke into their business and bother them. Hang out in their space. Sooner or later they will talk. Listen. They will have crazy ideas that make no sense, and unexpected questions that you thought they already knew the answers to. Take them seriously and answer them honestly. Never lie, because they need to be able to trust you. There is no need to pretend you know all the answers, just let them know that they are not ever alone.
Whatever path through grief that they choose is normal, and different than any other path trod before, by anyone. Often teenagers will grieve in bits and pieces, and seem better in between. Unexpectedly, something will trigger a wave of grief that will overwhelm them. A wrong word, a food, a smell, some anniversary – grief will knock their knees out from under them. Normal adolescent emotional swings will be exaggerated. They will get headaches and stomach aches, they will feel exhausted, or they will act out or withdraw. Grades may plummet either as a way of acting out or because they cannot concentrate. They may not sleep, or they may sleep too much. Any of these are normal.
Try to keep to routines and a normal life as much as possible. Expect decent behavior: enforce all the usual rules because safety and security reside in what is known and routine. Allow the grief. Remember the person you grieve over in whatever way helps your child: pray, write in a journal, paint a picture… Talk about times spent with them. Share your own experiences with grief and loss. Let them help in any way they can with any arrangements that need to be made – people feel better when they are busy and have accomplished something.
Be there when they need you, give them the opportunity to grieve, and watch them for behaviors that are more destructive than helpful. Grief never ends, but it evolves into a more acceptable form, and people can learn to live their lives and think about something else.
If you or your child need help to get there, ask. There is help available at the end of a phone call if you are having trouble navigating through on your own. There are many of us whose life work is to be there to help when there is need.