Have you experienced a death in the family? Perhaps your family has been affected by a job loss or a divorce. Or maybe your teen has broken up with a romantic partner. It could be that you’ve recently moved to a new state or that your teen’s best friend has moved away. Whatever traumatic situation your teenager is going through, it’s likely that he or she will go through some version of the five stages of grief. Here’s what you need to know about the grief your teen is experiencing.
Is This Grief-Worthy?
It’s important to understand that whether or not you think a particular event is worth grieving, your teenager might have very strong feelings about it. When reading about the five stages of grief, just keep in mind that although something like a move or a teenage breakup might not seem all that serious to you, your adolescent is entitled to his or her own feelings on the matter and might be grieving what has been lost. Try to be understanding, even if you think that he or she is overreacting.
Stage One: Denial
Your teen’s first reaction to hearing of a terminal diagnosis, a death, a divorce, or some other traumatic event might be to deny that it’s happening. This can take different forms. Your teen might verbally state their disbelief, saying out loud something like, “I don’t believe you,” or “no, everything will be fine.” Or your teen might just go about business as usual, barely responding to what he or she has been told. This can be confusing for parents, particularly if there’s been a death in the family or something else very serious; how can the teen simply shrug and make plans with a friend for that evening?
Denial is a self-preservation mechanism and is often the first of the five stages of grief. Once the first wave of shock wears off, the denial will recede. In the meantime, you can state the truth again in simple terms and just wait it out.
Stage Two: Anger
The next stage in the five stages of grief is often anger. This, too, can take many forms. Your teen might be angry at you, at the person who has died (or who is getting divorced or who is moving or sick), siblings, friends, and just about anyone who crosses his or her path. While normal and common, this type of reaction can cause pain to other people, especially those who are also dealing with their own grief.
Let your teen express him- or herself, but don’t be afraid to set boundaries for his or her behavior. Anger is okay, but blatant disrespect is not, so don’t tolerate it any more than you would at any other time. If you think that your teen needs professional help to get through this stage, don’t be afraid to seek it out. Otherwise, encourage them to journal, to be physically active, and otherwise find healthy outlets for their anger.
Stage Three: Bargaining
Depending on the type of event that’s causing the grief, your teen might bargain with you or with God or the universe, depending on his or her beliefs. For example, if you and your spouse are getting a divorce, your teen might try to make a bargain with you: He or she will do some action if you agree not to divorce. If someone in the family is suffering with a terminal illness, your teen might try to make bargains with a higher power.
Recognize this as a last-ditch effort on your teen’s part to stop a bad thing from happening. Let your child know that they’re not responsible for what’s happening and that bargaining is not going to fix the problem. Do try to lighten their load by offering support, counseling or other types of help, but don’t feed your teen’s false hope that bargaining can make a difference.
Stage Four: Depression
The final stage of the stages of grief is not usually clinical depression, but rather a strong sadness and, in some cases, guilt. Your teen might feel that if only he or she had done something differently, the situation would not have happened. In almost all cases, this is not true, and it’s important to reassure your child of this. It’s also normal for your child to be very sad and overwhelmed by the events to come: saying goodbye to a loved one, having to move, or whatever the implications of the traumatic situation are.
If this stage seems to drag on or gets worse, rather than better, then it is worthwhile to have your teen evaluated by his or her primary care physician. There is no shame or harm in talking to a counselor about his or her feelings, and suggesting this can make a big difference in how your teen feels. In some cases, medication or more intensive therapy might be needed to help them get through this stage.
Stage Five: Acceptance
Finally, your teen will accept the reality of the situation and will be able to adjust to a “new normal.” It can take a long time to get to this phase, and being in the acceptance phase does not mean that your teen might not sometimes go back to the previous phases. It just means that for the most part, your child can go on with life from this point forward.
Not everyone can get to the acceptance phase easily or on their own. Mental health counseling can make it a smoother transition and a counselor can also make a recommendation if it seems like pharmaceutical or behavioral therapy might be useful.
Helping your child through the five stages of grief can be difficult, particularly if you yourself are also going through the same thing. Depend on your support system to help you get through the hardest days after a traumatic event. If you aren’t very affected by the event that’s causing your teen grief, do whatever you can to support him or her through it. Don’t be afraid to depend on mental health specialists to help you know what to do to best help your child; they have the experience and the expertise to help your teen emerge from the darkest parts of grief.