Grief is tricky at any age, no matter how often you’ve experienced it. It becomes even more complicated when we look at teens and grief. 

Teen grief is an excruciatingly painful experience. An estimated 1 in 12 children in this country will lose a parent or sibling by the time they’re 18. Teenagers often feel isolated and misunderstood as they try to cope with loss. They may struggle to understand overwhelming waves of emotions they likely haven’t experienced before.

Just like no two losses are the same, neither are people’s healing processes. Each person may be experiencing a different type of grief, and the way they feel and deal with it will always vary. We don’t have a playbook or hard-set rules for helping teens cope with grief. That said, there are steps you can take to help them navigate this incredibly challenging time in their life. 

Read on to learn everything you should know about grief and loss for teens. From how to recognize it to talking to them to knowing when it’s time to seek therapy for teens — it’s critical to face teen grief head-on.  

Understanding Teen Grief

When teenagers deal with grief — especially for the first time — they experience unique challenges that adults are better equipped to handle. Most adults have had more time and experience being face-to-face with loss, but such deep sorrow can devastate a teen. Nearly 80% of people who lost a parent during childhood say it was the most difficult thing they’ve ever gone through. 

What to know about teens and grief:

They don’t understand their emotions: Teens often struggle to understand emotions related to their loss. They might wonder if the deep sadness they’re feeling is OK.

They don’t know what’s “normal”: Teenagers need help recognizing that their feelings are a normal reaction to grief.

They hide their emotions: Many teens face social pressure and have self-confidence issues that might make them try to fit in or avoid attention. This can lead some teenagers to try hiding their true feelings, even if they’re hurting deeply inside.

They have mood swings: Hormonal ups and downs can already cause emotional upheaval in a teenager’s life. Periods of grief can intensify these feelings.

They lack coping skills: Most teens haven’t dealt with a significant loss, so they haven’t yet developed coping skills to deal with their grief in a healthy manner.

“Teens can become emotionally dysregulated when going through grief. They get angry, frustrated, and act out negative behaviors when they are hurting. Teens are quick to act negatively, and it takes them time to work through the grief and understand how it impacts them.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LPC, LMHC

What Does Grief Look Like in Teens?

Like adults, grief in teens can present in many ways. That said, adults tend to be more able to discuss their feelings. In contrast, teens can express sorrow in a variety of different ways.

Common signs of grief in teens include:

Seeming withdrawn: Grief for teens often results in withdrawal. Teens may seclude themselves from others and avoid social activities and gatherings. Over 70% of teenagers say they didn’t know how to express their feelings or share what they were going through when they were grieving. 

Loss of interest: Grief can make some teenagers lose interest in activities they once enjoyed.

Drop in grades: It’s not uncommon for grieving teens to experience a drop in grades or attendance at school — 87% of teachers say their students have difficulty concentrating after losing a parent. 

Mood swings: Frequent mood changes are expected for teenagers processing a loss.

Sleep disturbances: A change in sleep patterns – too much or too little – is typical for anyone, including teens, as they cope with grief.

Risky behavior: Acting out or engaging in risky behavior can be an expression of pain and confusion that’s associated with loss. Drug use, excessive alcohol use, and reckless driving might all be actions taken by a teen dealing with grief. In several studies, teens who lost a parent had an increased risk of alcohol and substance abuse.

Being angry: An angry teenager may be a sign that they’re struggling with their grief. Even teenagers with a generally calm demeanor may suddenly have a short fuse, become easily frustrated, or be annoyed by even minor inconveniences while grieving. 

How to Approach and Talk to a Grieving Teen

Helping teens cope with grief can be overwhelming and scary, but it’s crucial. Open dialogue will help teenagers understand what they’re experiencing is normal and find a healthy way to cope.

When talking to a grieving teen, be sure to use active listening skills like:

Listening without judgment

Active listening means hearing what’s being said without judgment. This reassures teens that they can express themselves and are in a safe space without fear of criticism or misunderstanding. It’s important to share that you’re not trying to fix anything — you are just there to listen.

Encouraging communication

Encourage a grieving teen to open up, but be patient and let them go at their own pace.

Asking open-ended questions

Avoid yes-no questions (questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no”). Instead, use open-ended questions like “How are you feeling about what happened?” When someone can’t give a simple “yes” or “no” as an answer, it encourages more in-depth responses that will help you gauge how they’re doing. It also demonstrates your genuine interest in understanding their grief, which can be comforting.

Avoiding clichés

People use clichés for a reason — they can nicely sum up a situation or feelings. However, they tend to minimize emotions rather than validate them. Avoid phrases like “everything happens for a reason” or “this, too, shall pass.” These statements might sound comforting, but they can make teens feel unheard or misunderstood.

Offering genuine, non-judgmental support

True, authentic support goes beyond just saying words. Your actions — like spending time together or engaging in activities a teen enjoys — will help you connect on a deeper, more meaningful level. 

Seeking professional help

If you feel it’s time to get help from a mental health professional, don’t hesitate to reach out and start that process for your teen with online grief counseling. Not sure where or how to find support? Learn how to find a therapist for a teenager with our guide. 

“Parents are a main source of support for their kids. It might be hard to talk about grief- especially when the parents themselves might be grieving also but it is important to address this. Parents should give their teens a safe space to process their thoughts and feelings around grief. In doing so, parents are helping their teens cope more effectively.” 

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LPC, LMHC

Actionable Ways to Support Grieving Teens

Remember, dealing with teens and grief requires more than just sympathy. A grieving teen typically craves understanding, and actionable support can be key in giving them what they need. 

1. Maintain normalcy

Grief throws life off balance. You can help grieving teens by trying to preserve some sense of normalcy. Creating an environment with routines can provide comfort and stability during these turbulent and emotional times.

2. Be honest in your communication

Honesty is critical when talking to grieving teens, but be mindful of using age-appropriate language when discussing loss. Open communication will encourage trust so your teen feels secure while they share their feelings in the healthiest way possible.

3. Encourage (positive) socializing

Encouraging positive social interaction and allowing teens to spend time with friends can do wonders for their spirits. Positive socialization can offer a much-needed distraction from sorrow and painful thought processes. It’s important to foster healthy relationships, especially if you are seeing a teenager gravitate towards risky behavior.

4. Be compassionate

Show compassion, but don’t smother your teen as they walk through their grief. Your presence alone can speak volumes about your willingness to listen and understand their feelings. Offer compassion when they’re ready for it, and make sure teenagers know you’re there when they need you. 

Coping Strategies for Grieving Teens

Supporting grieving teens means having effective techniques and coping tools to help them overcome this difficult time.

1. Therapy

Grief therapy techniques, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), are a proven effective way to help anyone — including teenagers — manage grief. 

Some research suggests that family bereavement is associated with poor mental health in up to 25% of children with psychological concerns. Online therapy platforms like Talkspace can be a powerful tool for teenagers grappling with loss. 

Talkspace therapists are skilled in treating teen mental health challenges and more specifically, they can teach teens healthy ways to explore their emotions in a safe space.

2. Support group

A support group can be an amazing place for teens to pick up coping mechanisms they see working for their peers. Bonding with others who’ve experienced a similar loss can be incredibly healing, and local or online support groups can allow teens to share their experiences and learn from one another. 

3. Journaling

Journaling can be a powerful form of self-care for teens. Putting thoughts on paper can help teens untangle and understand the often-complex feelings related to their grief. Journaling for mental health can be an outlet that offers a safe place for a teenager to express themselves without judgment or interruption. The practice has been found in research to impact mental distress positively. 

4. Mental health days

Taking a mental health day away from school, work, or social activities can offer a much-needed break so teens have time and space to understand their feelings and recharge emotionally.

5. School support system

A robust support system in every aspect of a teen’s life will be critical throughout the grieving process. Counselors, teachers, and administrators should be aware of the loss a teen has experienced so they can help students cope throughout the academic day.

Exploring Grief Counseling for Teens

Counseling specific to teens and grief can help teenagers explore the feelings and emotions related to their devastating loss. Professional support can be instrumental in allowing teens to start understanding their grief. Then, they can develop effective coping techniques to use now and in the future. While teenagers often feel isolated when grieving, therapy can be a safe place where they begin to understand that they’re not alone. 

Talkspace offers online therapy specifically designed for teenagers, and therapists are experienced in helping young people rebuild resilience as they heal. The added benefit of being able to access help from the comfort of home can make the process less intimidating.

Nobody should have to endure loss on their own. Learn how Talkspace can be your ally in helping teens recover from grief. 


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