As we emerge from the pandemic and look back on the last year, the individual and collective losses associated with COVID-19 can seem overwhelming for all of us. And teens are often particularly sensitive to these losses.
Many teens have lost family members during the pandemic, and they may not have experienced the closure of a memorial service or time with extended family to grieve together. These losses are incalculable. But smaller and less significant losses can also be sources of grieving for teens. Since spring of 2020, most teens have experienced the grief of not celebrating milestones, like family holidays and significant school events such as prom or graduation; not having time with friends; and missing out on work, extracurricular, and educational opportunities.
It is essential for parents and caregivers to not only recognize and acknowledge the grief that teens are experiencing, but also to help them work through the emotional repercussions of COVID-19 losses.
The Importance of Acknowledging Grief
Teens may not even realize that they are grieving, or they may think that sadness about a missed prom or birthday party isn’t worth talking about when others have experienced much more severe losses. Acknowledging what they are going through, and assuring them that it’s okay to grieve long-anticipated experiences and opportunities, can help teens start to process and heal these feelings of loss.
Why is acknowledging and addressing grief so important? When grief remains unresolved, the consequences can be dangerous for teen mental health and well-being. Undealt-with grief can manifest as depression, anxiety, self-harm, and/or suicidal thoughts. Some teens turn to alcohol or other drugs to cope with difficult feelings. Research shows that adolescents who have experienced grief and loss are more likely to have difficulties at school and work, and are at increased risk of psychological disorders and physical illness. Moreover, the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 losses have the potential to catalyze in adolescents what’s known as complicated grief—an ongoing state of mourning that had debilitating effects.
Recognizing the Signs of Teen Grief
During a time when so many teens and people of all ages are struggling with mental health symptoms, it can hard to recognize when a young person is grieving. Here are some of the signs to watch for:
- Numbness, denial, or shock
- Inability to concentrate
- Sudden or increased irritability or anger
- Isolation or withdrawal from family, friends, or everyday activities
- Preoccupation or obsession with activity as a form of avoidance
- Changes in appetite
- Self-destructive behaviors, self-harm, or suicidality
- Insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too much or too little)
- Headaches, stomachaches, or other unexplained physical symptoms.
These signs can also indicate that a teen is suffering from trauma, depression, or anxiety. Therefore, during this challenging time, it’s crucial for parents to observe their teen’s behavior and communicate with them openly and frequently. Grieving is a natural process, but if it progresses into a mental health condition, a teen may need the support of a mental health professional.
What Not to Say to a Teen Who Is Grieving
Parents, caregivers, and other adults are often underprepared to help teens who are mourning a loss. Sometimes well-meaning people say things that invalidate the pain an adolescent is experiencing surrounding their loss, which can intensify their distress and make it more difficult for them to heal.
Here are some of the things not to say to a young person who is grieving:
- “Everyone is going through the same thing.”
- “You need to forget about it; get over it.”
- “Other people have it worse than you.”
- “Stop being so negative. You just need to change your attitude.”
- “The whole world is suffering. You’re just selfish.”
The experience of grief is different for each human being. Comparing the loss of an elderly parent to a teen’s loss of friend time or a graduation ceremony isn’t helpful. Instead, parents can validate their child’s feelings rather than judging their response to loss.
How to Help Teens Heal from Grief
The first step in healing is to help teens understand that their feelings and reactions are due to a loss. Talk about that loss, acknowledge that it is painful, and assure them that it’s okay for them to have any and all emotional responses that come up for them. Let them know that you are available to listen, comfort, or learn and understand what your teen is experiencing.
While it may be difficult for teens to talk about their feelings, doing so will help them move through their grief. However, many teens will be unwilling or perhaps even unable to discuss their grief, especially with a parent or caregiver who is often feeling the loss themselves. Even in grief, children often do not want to burden family members who are also suffering.
If parents are not emotionally available to support their teens, a therapist, mentor, friend, or clergy member can be a trusted listener. When that isn’t enough, outpatient or residential mental health treatment can be life changing, or even life saving, for a teen who is grieving, helping them to move forward into the future with a sense of hope and possibility.
Front. Psych. 2021 Feb; 12: 638940.
J Affect Disord. 2018 Nov; 240: 203–211.