This article was first published at essentialkids.com.au
When I was running seminars for teens, I noticed one afternoon working with some 14- to 15-year-olds that the whole group appeared to be very subdued.
I asked if something had happened and one of the students replied, “Noah was shot and killed on Home and Away last night”.
As adults we may think it is silly to be so affected by something on TV, however teens can be deeply impacted by the death of celebrities.
It isn’t just death that can have an impact: it can be any loss, such as the break-up of a favourite band as the world bore witness to when Zayn Malik left the hugely successful boy band, One Direction. Teen’s reactions made the news.
This is how some loss experiences can impact teens who are by nature sensitive and immature — cognitively, socially and emotionally. The more serious loss of someone they love can seem insurmountable and paralysing.
Feelings of grief can also arise when parents separate, relationships end or friendships break down.
Such loss triggers major emotional, cognitive, physical and spiritual challenges as we come to terms with living in a world without someone (or a pet) we love and value.
The executive functioning part of our brain — which allows us to make sound decisions, plan, manage impulses, feel empathy, have patience, and deal with conflict and stress — is not complete until the mid-20s.
It also means adolescents experience incredibly intense emotions. This emotional instability, an inability to manage moods and a resistance to ask for help creates a cluster of unique challenges that can make grieving especially difficult for teens.
So what can we do to support them through it?
Don’t take it personally
It’s important not to react harshly if your grieving teen lashes out at you. TLC, non-judgement and patience from you are required. Let your teen cry without too much talking from you. Check in with simple statements like “How can I best help you right now?”
Keep friends close
Encourage your son or daughter to have a friend/s stay with them during the early days of loss. Companionship can help soothe frazzled nerves. Also seek out ‘lighthouses’ – loving adult allies who can support your son or daughter when you can’t, or they prefer not to share with you.
Grief: It’s intense
Let your teen know that during grief intense feelings are normal and will get easier in time. Help them see these intense emotions as energy that they can discharge through crying, humour and physical activity. Also support them to create a spot (like an ‘altar) where they can have a photo of the deceased, some flowers, and maybe a candle to light whenever they want to reflect.
Keep them hydrated and offer easily digestible, nutritious food. Also give them extra zinc and magnesium and omega 3 to help the body with the extra work it’s doing. Also encourage teens to use guided relaxation audio tracks or soothing music to give them and their minds a break.
It is tempting during grief to numb the pain with drugs and alcohol. If you are involved in organising a wake, don’t encourage binge drinking. Offer light beer for over 18s and other refreshments, and keep an eye on young guests to keep them safe.
I would add that if your teen is grieving someone as a result of suicide, it is a good idea to seek professional help for them*. If they refuse, seek high quality information to help you monitor their grieving journey.
One thing we cannot do as parents, no matter how much we want to, is take the pain of loss away from someone who is grieving.
However, with good information, honesty, kindness and caring support our teens can heal and return to life with optimism and hope.
*If you or anyone you know is in need of crisis or suicide prevention support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au/gethelp.