Recently there have been a number of school shootings and fatal motor vehicle accidents involving teens. Most adults have experienced the death of an acquaintance, friend or family member, but for children and teens these public deaths are often their first experience with death. Their grief is further complicated by the fact that many are experiencing survivor’s guilt. Add to this confronting their own mortality for the first time and it is no surprise children and teens sometimes get stuck in one or more of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Parents responses are critical in assisting young people in their grief from these type of incidents. Parents may also be dealing with their own grief issues, and they most likely are feeling relieved to have their child still with them. This is perfectly understandable, but they will need to remember that their child is likely more affected than they are and needs their help.
The first thing parents can do is model appropriate grief reactions. Children and teens are often embarrassed to show their feelings. They need to see that it is alright to grieve. Sharing your feelings about what happened with your children will encourage them to talk to you about their feelings. Let your child know that you are always there to talk to, no matter what time of day it is. Then prove it. Because teens are so busy during the day, they often don’t realize that they need to talk until they go to bed and can’t sleep.
Schools are very good at marshalling resources during a crisis. They often have group activities and bring in crisis counselors. Encourage your child to participate in any group activity the school provides, even if your child doesn’t seem to be showing any grief symptoms. This will help prevent problems. If your child knew any of the people affected, encourage your child to talk to the crisis counselors at school.
Encourage your child to keep a journal. Journalling is a great way to get feelings out. Another plus is that it serves as a record of what happened, past feelings and progress. If you have kept a journal in the past, share how journalling has helped you. You might even want to share some of what you have written. Remember, children learn best from the example parents set, not what they say!
Have your child draw a picture of how he feels now or when he found out. This doesn’t need to be limited to young children. Teens can benefit from this also. Similarly, making collages can help get feelings out. Give your child a stack of magazines, scissors, glue, and blank paper and the directions to make a collage, “about how you felt at the time.” This can get out significantly more feelings than just asking. Then when she is finished, ask her to explain why she chose each item that she included in the collage. Additional collages can be made with the questions, “How did you feel when you found out?” “How did you feel at the funeral?” “How did you feel the first day back to school?” and “What are you feeling now?”
Another way to help teens with their grief is to have them get involved in activities or fundraisers that honor the person who has died. This will give them a sense of connection to that person. In addition it will give them a sense of purpose. The same can be true for getting involved in something the person was passionate about.
It is essential to keep the lines of communication open. If your child is having a hard time opening up to you, try talking in the car. Teens often find it easier to talk to parents when eye contact is impossible.
Don't hesitate to to call in a professional if the child's grief seems to be lasting longer than her peers or he is showing signs of depression. Talk with your physician or school personnel regarding a referral for counseling. Also, talk to your child’s physician or the therapist to see if an antidepressant might be appropriate.
While children and teen’s grief follows the same stages of grief as adult grief, it may look very different. In addition, their not fully developed brain may not be fully equipped to deal with grief. The good news is that parents can help them through it.