Helping Teenagers Cope with Grief During COVID-19

Teenagers are Grieving more than Death

Teens (13-17 years) are experiencing more than feelings around death during the isolation and “stay at home” orders due to the COVID-19 virus. During what is typically a very social time for this age group, they are being limited to interacting virtually with friends, and only sharing physical space with their immediate family. They are unsure of when this time will end and have no certainty as to what the “new normal” will be. It is a stressful time for everyone and acknowledging that discomfort, strain, and unknown can go a long way to easing some of the tension.

The good news is caring adults, whether parents, teachers, counselors or friends, can help teens during this time. When adults are open, honest, and loving about the feelings they are experiencing, and nonjudgmental to hearing what teens are missing about school, sports, and the social activities that normally happen at this time in their life, kids are more likely to share. Validating their feelings lets them know while you cannot change their experience, you are listening and caring.  Making time to virtually meet and chat with older family members or reading a book to younger family members can ease some of their anxiety.

Many Teens have Conflicting Feelings

For a number of reasons, adults who lack understanding of their teen’s experience may discourage them from sharing their grief. Bereaved teens present many signs that they are struggling with complex feelings, yet may feel pressure to act as if they are doing better than they actually are. While teens are good at putting up walls and fending off an adult’s concern or questions, we need to be persistent and let them know that while we understand their resistance we are not going away.

One month into “distance learning” and “social distancing”, teens are sharing that they are feeling sad, trapped, lonely, low energy and motivation, stressed, unproductive and even depressed. The increase in screen time, up more than 45% on average, is concerning to them. They worry that the increased time on their phones/computers is detrimental to their health.  While they admit to appreciating more family time, some 13-17 year olds say the close quarters, lack of boundaries and privacy (sharing a room with a younger sibling or one who has returned home due to unexpected college shut-down) can add to their level of frustration.

Teen Years Can be Naturally Difficult

Teens are no longer children, yet neither are they adults. With the exception of infancy, no developmental period is so filled with change as adolescence. At a time when we are normally fostering independence and adolescents are beginning the process of separation from parents, this quarantine can put an unnatural halt to this normal developmental stage.  If a teen is already reeling from recent death, this can be a particularly devastating experience during this already difficult period. As news cycles are available through many mediums, twenty-four hours a day, limiting exposure of news related to the impact the COVID-19 will be helpful for yourself and your family. 

At the same time the bereaved teen is confronted by the death of someone loved, he or she also faces psychological, physiological, and academic pressures. While teens may begin to look like adults, they will still need consistent and compassionate support as they do the “work of mourning,” as physical development does not always equal emotional maturity.  While they may understand the immediate need to “social distance”, they are feeling a lack of control and unfairness in being told they cannot see and spend time out with friends, miss out on an entire Spring athletic season, or experience an 8th grade ceremony, proms or High School graduation festivities.

Teens Often Experience Sudden Deaths

The grief that teens experience often comes suddenly and unexpectedly. A parent may die of a sudden heart attack, a brother or sister may be killed in an auto accident, or a friend may die by suicide. The very nature of these deaths often results in a prolonged and heightened sense of unreality. With this new and unknown virus teens have many questions and their emotional reactions can be wide ranging and vary from day to day. Being overwhelmed by media sources and seeing the number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths increase by country, state and county can make their sense of safety even more precarious. Many teens say they worry that when they can go out they will be a carrier and make a vulnerable relative ill. Clearly, feeling responsible for another’s health is a huge weight to carry.

Feeling dazed or numb when someone loved dies is often part of the grieving teen’s early experience. This numbness serves a valuable purpose: it gives their emotions time to catch up with what their mind has been told. This feeling helps insulate them from the reality of the death until they are more able to tolerate what they don’t want to believe.    

Teens often need caring adults to confirm that it’s all right to be sad and to feel a multitude of emotions when someone they love dies. They also usually need help understanding that the hurt they feel now won’t last forever. When ignored, teens may suffer more from feeling isolated than from the actual death itself. Worse yet, they feel all alone in their grief.

Ways You Can Help Support Teens

Four things to keep in mind in supporting teens: 1. Balance Expectations 2. Social Distancing (even when things start to open up) 3. Keep a routine 4. Manage emotions.

Encourage teens to have a routine, including timeframes for school, socializing, physical activity, alone time, and family time. You and other adults can lead by example.

Practice gratitude on a regular basis and focus on making each day special in some way. As hard as it may be to find an upside at this strange time, remind yourself and children of the positive things in your life.

Encourage your teen to consider doing something to help others such as assisting an older neighbor with yard work, grocery shopping, meals or volunteering with a community food pantry.

Signs a Teen May Need Extra Help

As we have discussed, there are many reasons why healthy grieving can be especially difficult for teenagers. Some grieving teens may even behave in ways that seem inappropriate or frightening. Be on the watch for:

  • symptoms of chronic depression, sleeping difficulties, restlessness and low self esteem.
  • academic failure or indifference to school-related activities
  • deterioration of relationships with family and friends
  • risk-taking behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse, fighting, and sexual experimentation
  • denying pain while at the same time acting overly strong or mature

To help a teen who is having a particularly hard time with his or her loss, explore the full spectrum of helping services in your community. School counselors, church groups, and therapists are appropriate resources for some young people, while others may just need a little more time and attention from caring adults like you. The important thing is that you help the grieving teen find safe and nurturing emotional outlets at this difficult time.

A Caring Adult’s Role

How adults respond when someone loved dies has a major effect on the way teens react to the death. Sometimes adults don’t want to talk about the death, assuming that by doing so, young people will be spared some of the pain and sadness. However, the reality is very simple: teens grieve anyway.

According to “Coping for Kids, Coping for Life” director, Kris Fulkerson, LICSW,MS. “you are what your kids need”. You know your kids best; if their behaviors concern you, reach out to school guidance staff or a professional therapist. NAMI Maine also has resources for parents who may be concerned about their teens’ persistent symptoms https://www.namimaine.org/.  The Maine Crisis Hotline is 1-888-568-1112

Be Aware of Support Groups

Peer support groups are one of the best ways to help bereaved teens heal. In a group, teens can connect with other teens who have experienced a loss. They are allowed and encouraged to tell their stories as much, and as often, as they like. In this setting most will be willing to acknowledge that death has resulted in their life being forever changed. You may be able to help teens find such a group. This practical effort on your part will be appreciated. For information about The Center for Grieving Children support services see https://www.cgcmaine.org/

Understanding the Importance of the Loss

Remember that the death of someone loved is a shattering experience for an adolescent. As a result of this death, the teen’s life is under reconstruction. Consider the significance of the loss and be gentle and compassionate in all of your helping efforts.

Grief is complex. It will vary from teen to teen. Caring adults need to communicate to children that this feeling is not one to be ashamed of or hide. Instead, grief is a natural expression of love for the person who died.

With love and understanding, adults can support teens through this vulnerable time and help make the experience a valuable part of a teen’s personal growth and development.

While the guidelines in this article may help, it is important to recognize that helping a grieving teen will not be an easy task. You may have to give more concern, time and love than you ever knew you had. But this effort will be more than worth it.

By “walking with” a teen in grief, you are giving one of life’s most precious gifts — yourself.

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