By definition, loss is difficult. For a teenager going through a key transition in his life, it can be especially difficult to navigate loss of any kind.
At Heartlight, a residential counseling center, we have about sixty kids living with us. These teens come to us because of life issues they are struggling to solve. Many of them find their way to Heartlight because they are acting out through inappropriate and unhealthy behavior. Grief is one of the primary causes of that behavior.
We all deal with grief. Whether you grieve losing your family pet, a job loss, or a move to a new town, sorrow and heartache are normal responses to the human experience. In all likelihood, your teen has experienced these low moments in some form or fashion. Today’s kids are dealing with normal expressions of grief that come after losing a parent or grandparent. But there are other losses as well: loss of a dream, death of a friend, or a fractured love relationship.
The teen years are filled with transitional moments. First and foremost is your teen’s evolution from childhood to adulthood. This season presents dramatic transformations. Along with physical changes, your teen is also experiencing a change in how he thinks. He is no longer thinking in concrete terms alone. He is beginning to think abstractly. This often makes a person grieve over childhood loss a second time, because he understands it in a different way than he did when it initially happened. Even if you thought that your teen had grieved over a loss in his childhood, it may surface again as he begins to reorder his life with this new abstract thinking skill.
Your teen will mourn differently than you do. Even if you lose the same thing (such as a relative), your teen will face unique challenges in processing that loss. If someone has died, they are facing the end of life at the beginning of their own life. It’s not easy. Kids have a hard time realizing that life is not a static experience. It’s always shifting. So when they have major life changes that cause grief, they may end up having panic attacks or self-medicating. A counselor or other trained professional can be helpful in these moments.
However, before we rush to using a counselor, we need to allow kids to have time to express their grief. Even if they say that things are good, their behavior will show us how they are feeling. Some people grieve all at once, but others can grieve over ten years or longer.
A statement made by my friend who worked with me at Kanakuk Kamp in the ‘80s had a great way of summarizing the struggle. He said, “The moods of a lifetime are often set in the all-but-forgotten events of childhood.”
If your teen holds onto his grief instead of processing it and moving past it, that grief may become a “mood of a lifetime.” Your teen is trying to navigate his transition to adulthood, and he needs your help! If your teen is outgoing, he may be overly demonstrative in his emotions. You can help him temper his emotions. If your teen is more inclined toward grieving in silence, what he really needs is a silent friend to simply endure the vigil with him.
Either way, your teen will use the relationship that you established before the loss to determine how much he will rely on you while he is grieving. Build your relationship with your teen now so he is willing to come to you when it becomes a problem. Be intentional about listening. Appoint deliberate time when you shut off your phone and focus on your child. Help your teen identify feelings and express them. That doesn’t mean you will know what your child is feeling, but you can help him figure out what he is feeling, and then put words to it. Help him understand that he might not get over the grief, but the grief doesn’t have to control him.
It’s important not to ignore the sorrow, but don’t make a big deal about it either. Be attentive to your child and notice those things that will show you what he’s really experiencing. Even when it seems like something should be over and done with, there’s a reason that it’s surfacing again. When those times come, it’s important to think about why it’s coming up again. Maybe your teen didn’t have a chance to properly grieve the first time, or maybe another cause of grief is compounding his earlier loss.
Joey O’Connor has a unique perspective on grief. He is the author of Teens and Grief, and his grandfather started a series of mortuaries in Los Angeles in 1898 which his family continues to run. Joey’s definition of grief is helpful: Grief is a series of emotions that come from a loss or a change in a pattern of behavior. During this weekend’s broadcast of Parenting Today’s Teens, Joey will share more ways to help your teen process grief.
Grief is a season, not a lifestyle. The only reason we grieve is that we value what we lost. I hope your teen never forgets his loss, but let’s make sure it doesn’t control him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas. For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website. It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Go to www.heartlightministries.org. Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at www.markgregston.com. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173. Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.