THE GRIEVING TEEN

Teen years are already tumultuous years, and the bereaved teen needs special attention. Under ordinary circumstances, teenagers go through many changes in their body image, behavior, attachments and feelings. As they break away from their parents to develop their own identities, conflicts often arise within the family system. Life becomes even more complex when a father, mother or other significant person dies - a shattering experience faced by one child in every ten before the age of eighteen. While people in all age groups struggle with such losses, teenagers face particularly painful adjustments following the death of a loved one.

Do teens grieve like adults?

Teens grieve deeply but often work very hard to hide their feelings. Fearing the vulnerability that comes with expression, they look for distractions rather than stay with the grief process long enough to find real relief. Feelings can be turned off quickly, much like flipping a light switch. Teens can act as if nothing has happened while they are breaking up inside. You may observe teens who take on the role of caregiver to family members or friends, in effect denying their own grief.

Gender makes no distinctions when it comes to experiencing grief, but the outward signs may be different. Young men of this age may have a particularly hard time when they have been taught that showing emotion is something that girls do - but macho guys don't.

Who do teens trust and talk to?

Teens often trust only their peers, believing that no one else can understand how they feel and how they react to life's problems. Relationships with friends can be deep and meaningful, sharing conflicts occurring at home and details of their love lives.

How can adults gain the trust of teens?

To gain the trust of teens, adults must become good, nonjudgmental listeners. Let teenagers know that you are interested in them, in their views, in their ideas and thoughts. Let them know that you like and care for them. Support their ideas or gently introduce new ways to approach their ideas. Acknowledge their grief and offer your thoughts of how to ease their pain.

Does peer counseling work?

Because teens are most open to fellow teens, one approach to providing help is through peers. And it works. Peer counseling is now an elective course in many schools for teens. Peer counselors are trained to look at all kinds of life problems on a personal level and then at ways to help their peers. They are introduced to different situations that may occur, and speakers are brought in to teach them about specific topics.

Because teens are willing listen to other teens, peer counseling can play an important role in establishing communication with distressed classmates and friends, as well as steering them to professional help if it is needed. Peer counselors learn about depression, grief, communicating with parents and other adults, suicidal ideation, etc. At the same time, they learn their limitations and are assured of the support and expertise of their peer counseling teachers for consultation.

Selecting the right teacher for this is of course critical, since he or she must gain the trust and respect of the students - just as students will seek the trust and respect of the peers they may be called upon to counsel.

Content provided with permission from The American Hospice Foundation.

By Helen Fitzgerald, CT
Training Director, American Hospice Foundation
October, 2000