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Grief and Substance Abuse

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Grief and Substance Abuse

Grief can impact teens signficantly. Teens have powerful responses to loss. Our culture tends to associate grief with adult emotional processes. In addition, we overlook the fact that children and teens also grieve after losing a parent, a friend, or a close personal relationship. Unlike adults, teens often don’t have the life experience to cope with grief. Furthermore, young people who aren’t able to handle their grief may be driven to experiment with alcohol or drugs in order to numb the pain.

How Teen Grief Feels

Feelings you experience during the grieving process may include:

  • A sense of numbness, as if you don’t care about anything
  • A feeling of disbelief about the loss
  • Fearanxiety and worry about being separated from someone you love
  • A sense of deep sadness or depression

The National Cancer Institute makes an important distinction between bereavement and grief. After a tragic event, the sadness and depression that you feel are part of bereavement. Grief is the emotional cycle you go through as you react to bereavement and try to resume your normal life.

Processing Grief

For some adolescents, grieving may last only a few weeks. For others, the process may take years. No matter how long it takes, the final stage of grief is a sense that you’ve accepted the loss and are able to move ahead with your life. Teens sometimes are not allowed to complete the grieving process. Or feelings of sadness and anger aren’t acknowledged and they may try to bury these powerful emotions in substance abuse. The process of using drugs or alcohol to relieve emotional pain is known as self-medication.

Teens and Grief

There are a lot of reasons why a teenager may experience grief. Grief may follow the death of a close relative, friend, teacher or pet. The loss of important relationships may also require a period of sadness and mourning. Teens who are moving, going through a divorce, or separating from a romantic partner may feel separation, confusion and loss.

Teens, Trauma, and PTSD

Incidents that affect the whole community, like a weather disaster or an act of terrorism, can affect a teen’s sense of security. This can create feelings of helplessness, disbelief and horror. A violent act like personal assault, rape, or sexual abuse can have a traumatic impact on a teen’s psyche. Teens whose bodies and minds have been violated may feel a sense of grief for the parts of themselves that were damaged or destroyed.

Traumatic grief can have a powerful, life-changing effect on teens.

In a 2010 article in the journal Minerva Pediatrica, researchers at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute reported that post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is more common in adolescents than adults. Sometimes alcohol and drugs are used to cope with the effects of traumatic grief. Furthermore, adolescents can become suicidal, the researchers noted. Therefore, parents must be on the lookout for behaviors.

Teen Suicide and Grief—Key Statistics

Statistics compiled by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention confirm that there’s a strong relationship between suicide, alcohol abuse, and teens:

  • Approximately 30 percent of suicides involve alcohol abuse.
  • Out of the leading causes of death among kids ages 5 through 14, suicide is #6.
  • Out of the leading causes of death among teens ages 14 through 24, suicide is #3.
  • In the 5-14 age group, the suicide rate was 0.7 percent in 2009; in the 14-24 age group, the suicide rate was 10.1 percent.

Respecting Teen Feelings

A teenager’s need to grieve must be respected. Parents sometimes underestimate the depth of a teen’s response to a loss. This may be because they themselves aren’t emotionally attached to the person, place, or pet in question. A teenager who can’t get over the death of a beloved dog or who can’t adjust to a divorce may be told that he or she will “grow out of it”. Or they are told they will “just have to learn to live with it”.

Teenagers who are still growing emotionally and socially need guidance. They need wisdom from experienced, nonjudgmental adults to help them learn to live with a serious loss. Consequently, compassion is key.

Grief and Self-Medication

After a violent crime, a fatal car crash, or other traumatic event, it’s not uncommon for teens to soothe with alcohol or drugs. Adults might seek counseling or prescription medication. Teens may hide from their emotions and turn inward. WebMD notes that teenagers between the ages of 14 and 16 are especially likely to use drugs or alcohol after a traumatic event. Teenagers at this age tend to have a feeling of immortality. Furthermore, they are likely to take dangerous risks as a way to prove that they themselves can’t be harmed.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that more than 50 percent of teens with traumatic stress self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. The urge to self-medicate may occur not only right after a traumatic experience, but whenever a teenager is reminded of that event. Sights, sounds or odors may trigger painful feelings that are so strong that they frighten a teenager into drinking or using. Hence, trauma can have a huge impact.

The Danger of Self-Medicating

But self-medication is a dangerous solution for several reasons:

  • Teenagers who take risks with alcohol or drugs out of fear are in danger of being injured or killed in an accident or altercation.
  • Young people who use drugs or alcohol in response to trauma are at risk of suicide or an accidental overdose.
  • Teens who self-medicate instead of treatment may never learn why they respond to certain trauma triggers.
  • Teenagers who aren’t treated for both their traumatic stress and their substance abuse may have a higher risk of relapse.
  • Young people who engage in substance abuse to numb their feelings may not develop emotionally or socially at the same rate as their sober peers.
  • Adolescents who don’t learn healthy ways to cope with loss may never learn how to grieve without self-medicating.

The Family’s Role

Families play a critical role in helping teens get through the grief cycle successfully.

Parents who disregard or belittle their teenager’s feelings may make the grieving experience even worse. By denying their teen the opportunity to learn how to handle bereavement, they are stunting growth. In addition, in some cases, a parent may let personal feelings of anger or resentment interfere with the way a teenager processes grief. After a hostile divorce, for instance, a mother may resent a teenager’s feelings of sadness at losing her father. Therefore, parents must try to keep their own feelings separate from a teenager’s grief.

Talk to Teens

Encouraging teenagers to talk about grief can help them. They need to learn to identify the reasons for their sadness, fear, or anger. But only if family members listen without interrupting or judging. As you listen, keep in mind that every teen’s response to loss is different. As a result of your obvious presence, your teen will open up.

What Not to Say

Try to avoid statements like:

  • “Everyone feels that way.”
  • “We’ve all been through that, and we all get over it.”
  • “Don’t dwell on negative feelings.”
  • “Just try to think about something happier.”

Families should provide support for a teen’s grief. Furthermore, if the sadness seems unjustified or out of proportion to the loss itself, support is still needed. If a teenager breaks up with a boyfriend, parents shouldn’t minimize her sadness by saying things like, “You were only dating for a few months,” or “Your grandmother was married for 60 years and didn’t cry like that when your grandfather died.” Above all, never downplay suicidal gestures or statements.

When grief leads to substance abuse, a talk usually isn’t enough to keep a teenager from self-destructing. Therefore, you may need more support.

Grief counseling and addiction treatment may be necessary. Teenagers who’ve turned to self-medication after a traumatic loss need help. Hence, find professionals who are skilled with teens.

Family Therapy and Treatment

Families can connect their teens with addiction specialists and mental health professionals. These experts can help teens uncover the cause of their grief and identify the triggers that prompt them to drink or use drugs.

Grief often involves more than one person in a family. Parents themselves may have unresolved sadness over a death, divorce or trauma. In addition, adults who abuse alcohol or drugs in response to grief are setting a bad example for their teens. They’re numbing their own emotions instead of completing the grief cycle.

Family counseling helps a whole household heal emotionally after a devastating loss.

How Teen Treatment Works

For teens who self-medicate to deal with grief, treatment can be effective. If substance abuse and traumatic stress are treated at the same time, greater success results. Teens who don’t receive grief counseling as part of the recovery process may be more likely to relapse in the future. This is because they won’t have the right tools to cope with their emotions. Hence, it is key for teens to get what they need. An adolescent who has been through a traumatic loss must learn how to handle the emotional triggers that can set off a craving for drugs or alcohol.

Grief therapy and addiction treatment can be at an outpatient or inpatient residential facility. Consequently it is key for parents to seek the best options for care.

Inpatient Teen Treatment

Inpatient treatment removes a teen from destructive influences and reminders of personal trauma. This way, he or she can concentrate on completing the grieving process and recovering from addiction. Families should participate in treatment. They can do so by attending family counseling sessions or participating in group therapy. As a result of participation, everyone in the family gets to heal.

Therapies for Teens

The University of Maryland Counseling Center recommends both individual and group counseling for teenagers. In individual sessions, a teen receives one-on-one attention from a licensed professional. Therefore, this person is trained to address the social and emotional needs of teens. In group counseling sessions, teens within the same age group get together to engage in therapeutic discussions. Group therapy offers grieving teens a number of important benefits and lessons:

  • Grief is not an experience that you have to go through alone.
  • They learn about the dangers of self-medication by listening to others’ experiences.
  • Teens get advice from peers on how to handle powerful emotions without drinking or using.
  • They can practice new ways of dealing with their emotions and learn new coping skills to prevent a relapse.

You are Not Alone

In conclusion, at times of traumatic loss, teenagers need a lot of guidance and support from compassionate adults. The experienced professionals at Newport Academy can help you decide what will work best for your teen. Children aren’t born knowing how to grieve; it’s an emotional process that must be learned. Teens who have the right coping skills will be able to respond to death, separation or trauma without turning to drugs or alcohol.