Losing a parent is an enormous loss, even for an adult, and it is earth shattering for a child, who is still largely dependent. Many people associate the intensity of the loss as inversely proportional to the age of the child, under the assumption that the older he is, the better he will be able to deal with it. Nothing could be farther from the truth- a teenager who has lost a parent gets responsibilities thrust upon him that he may not be ready for.
Teenagers are going through an emotional roller coaster ride as it is, and the loss of a parent during this turbulent period can shake the world under their feet. There are many emotions at play here, made more complicated by a teenager’s age and circumstances.
Emotional Problems of Grieving Teenagers
- Most teenagers feel an excessive amount of guilt – a basic form of survivor’s guilt, which gets intensified if they didn’t get along well with the deceased parent. They often wish they could go back and mend things and this kind of damaging thought process can take a toll on their mental health.
- The surviving parent is probably not in a state of mind to comfort her children, and other relatives might ask the teenager to step up and comfort her parent. This kind of ‘mothering the parent’ can become very hard and there are many instances of adults still trying to fill the void left by a parent they lost in their teen years. Boys especially, might be asked to be the ‘man’ of the house, without the realization that while he’s not a child, he’s still not an adult either.
- The loss of an earning member of the family can result in a change in the entire household, extreme cases may include relocating to a different place. This can be very difficult during a time when familiarity is essential for comfort.
- Teenagers are usually at critical points in their academic journey, with having to prepare for several important exams. The loss of a parent at a time like this can throw all their plans off gear and it can have a permanent impact on their future.
- Teenagers are not emotionally stable, and a major trauma like this can mess up their rational thinking even further. A desire to drown in something to forget their grief can lead to risky behavior like smoking, alcohol, drugs and unprotected and underage sex.
Tips to Help a Teenager Cope with the Loss of a Parent
First of all, try to maintain their daily routine as it was earlier, in order to give some semblance of normalcy to the family’s life. Though they might resist eating and sleeping, ensure that they do at least a little of these, which will help their minds to deal better.
Extended family –
The surviving parent needs a lot of support at this stage, and is unlikely to be able to tend to her children’s needs. This is where the extended family comes in. Relatives can help take care of basic things like groceries, school drop offs, visitors, etc., and can also ensure that the family eats well and sleeps on time. Moreover, if the teenager needs to talk, he’ll need someone other than his parent, like a close aunt or cousin.
The teenager’s friends are usually at an age where they can understand the enormity of their friend’s loss and behave appropriately. Since teenagers think highly of their peers, spending time with friends can make them feel better and stop them from any self-destructive thoughts.
Let the teen stay away from school as long as he wants to. He might need some time away or he might prefer getting back to normal life as soon as possible. Let him do as he feels, and don’t insist on what you think will make him feel better. Let the teachers know what has happened, so they can be a little more sensitive towards him at school.
Support group –
At some point, if not initially, the teenager may want to talk about it. He might not feel comfortable doing this with the surviving parent, and friends may not be mature enough to help him out. A support group or counselor is ideal for such cases, especially if the child is considering risky behavior or thoughts of suicide. A counselor can guide him by providing the right tools to deal with his grief and to move ahead.
Everyone deals with grief in their own way and take their own time to accept it fully. It is useless to try and force a child to get back to normal life if he’s not yet ready for it. Things like this take time, and no one can say for sure how long. Make sure that there is a lot of love and help at hand, and a listening ear for whenever the child is ready to talk. While there is no way to stop the grief, with time and love, one can learn to accept it as a part of one’s life and move on with that acceptance and the good memories of their loved one.