Helping Teens Cope with Grief

Rev. Deb Koster

June 6, 2024

We are all just a phone call away from our world turning upside-down. Grief is a very real part of life in our broken world even for teenagers. Classmates die in car accidents, parents divorce, and family members you love battle life-threatening illnesses. It is hard enough when we face these challenges as adults, but for grieving teens, the world is even more complicated. They are processing loss with a limited understanding of God, a still-developing brain, and an incomplete toolset for managing big emotions. For parents who may well be grieving themselves, it can present a significant parenting challenge to care for our teenagers through the grieving process.

Recognizing the challenges

Grief brings new, heavy emotions to the surface. The teen brain is still developing into the early 20’s, so teens do not yet have fully developed decision-making capability or impulse control. Teens may lack the capacity to express big emotions, much less to process or make sense of their emotional overwhelm. When these big feelings go untended, teens may respond in unhealthy ways such as substance abuse, defiance, or self-harm. They may blame themselves or lash out or withdraw as they try to process the emotions they are experiencing.

More than just emotions

While grief looks like an emotional challenge, it impacts all aspects of our lives. In our spiritual lives, we may question where God is and wonder how God could allow this suffering to happen to us. Grief can impact our self-identity when we feel betrayed and unloved by God. Trauma can cloud judgment and lead to poor decision-making. Our thinking gets intertwined with grief and our capacity for abstract thinking gets diminished. Motivation can suffer as grief robs us of enthusiasm for facing a new day in the shadow of loss. The trauma we carry affects us physically as well; our bodies do indeed keep a record of the pains we have encountered.

Missing perspective

Without the life experience to put a loss in perspective, teens may feel overwhelmed. Teen's still-developing capacity for abstract thinking may lead them to hyper-focus on the issue and miss seeing the resources at their disposal or their own capability for navigating this hard season. It is normal for teens to question whether God is good and loving when they experience grief. Parents need not feel threatened when their teens express doubts. Teens who are focused on death and loneliness can find themselves in a downward spiral of hopelessness. Teens need safe spaces to process big feelings so they don’t evolve into self-hatred or self-harm. As parents, we need to help them process their feelings without an unhealthy focus that keeps them from experiencing God’s faithful presence even in seasons of very real pain.

Derailing developmental tasks

Grief can interfere with normal developmental tasks and we may see regression in our kids as they wrestle with the pain in their lives. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson described the stages of psychosocial development and explains how teens are in the process of exploring their identity and discovering who God has made them to be. As they experience the world and its challenges, they begin to wonder about their role in God’s big story. Teens are still discerning their gifts and curious about how they can contribute to the world. Peers play an influential role in the lives of teens as they discern who they want to be as adults. Grieving a loss or dealing with significant trauma impacts one’s ability to accomplish these developmental tasks. Some teens may move toward isolation, while others may become hyper-social. These social shifts may help them cope with pain at the moment, but they may be unhealthy when they don’t allow teens to process their heavy emotions. Even when they understand their behaviors may not be healthy, they may react defensively when confronted.

As parents, we need to be empathic toward our children as they face what to them feels like overwhelming challenges. Even as they may be experiencing their own grief, parents need to recognize how much grieving children, including teens, need their parents' comfort. Supporting their teens through the hard seasons isn’t easy and parents will benefit from leaning into their support systems.

Start with self-care

We can’t give what we don’t have, so consider how you could care well for yourself. Extending grace to ourselves and others will help us find the strength and encouragement to get through hard times. Allow others the chance to support you. Get the support of a licensed Christian counselor to help you process your concerns and make wise choices in navigating this hard season. Modeling good self-care is a gift to our families.

Lean into faith

Our faith can be tested when we are overwhelmed with grief. It is easy to feel angry at our circumstances and blame God for the pain we are feeling. We may feel so unloved, that God would permit these painful circumstances, that we miss how God is present with us in these struggles. Yet, God walks with us and is near to the broken-hearted (Psalm 34:6). God equips us with wisdom, peace, and strength that are beyond our own capabilities. It can be difficult to trust God in hard times, but it is our lifeline.

Recognizing the messy

Grief is never smooth or uncomplicated. Grief doesn’t move easily through its stages, but rather, it catches us off guard at the most inopportune times. Grieving families are riding a roller coaster of emotion and will often be out of sync with one another. Your teen’s feelings and actions may not make sense to you but choose to respond with patience and empathy. Don’t let the unpredictability of emotions derail your efforts to help your kids navigate their grief. Teens need safe spaces to feel and express their big emotions.

Lean into relationship

Set aside distractions and tune into your relationship with your kids. Put down your phone to listen attentively to what is going on in your child’s life. Ask good questions to learn what are the highs and lows they are experiencing. Spend time together over family meals whenever possible to connect in positive ways. Expressing emotions face to face can be challenging for kids so a side-by-side activity like a game or a project can help teens share in a less pressured way. Play their favorite video game with them, take them for ice cream after a sporting event, or whatever speaks love to your child. Make time to have fun and laugh together. Laughter is good medicine to offset the stressors happening in your life. Showing up to be present to our children matters. They may say they don’t care, but your physical presence speaks volumes about your priorities. Our teens may not appreciate public displays of affection, but hugs can be powerful in communicating our love.

Listening well

Tuning into your teens helps them to feel validated. It is important to listen attentively and reflect back to them the emotions that you are hearing them express. Listening well requires that we not be reactive or jump in with advice. It is important to explore feelings rather than probing for information. If you are unsure what feelings are being expressed, it is okay to ask. Asking “How did that make you feel?” shows that we care about their emotions and want to understand what they are feeling. Lean into the conversation by following up, “I’d like to understand better. Could you explain a bit more?” Seek to clarify what you don’t understand, “So when (situation) happened, you felt (emotion)? Did I get that right?”

Living with integrity

If we want our children to confide in us and trust us with their feelings, we need to be people who are trustworthy. Our children look to us as a model for how to live. When our lives are marked by the fruit of the spirit, our children learn the value of cultivating those virtues. Our words and actions should align and we should apologize and make restitution when we mess up. When we are accountable for our actions our children learn to trust us.

Handling challenges

Grieving kids may lash out as a way to express their frustrating emotions. When a child needs correction, it is the parent’s role to step in and offer redirection. Our goal should not be to punish our teen’s bad behavior, but instead to create better behavior going forward. When you need to correct behavior, do it with love. Be sure to affirm all the good behavior so that you are supportive and not just correcting. We need a loving context to hear a correction given to us or otherwise all we hear is condemnation. Scripture tells us not to provoke our kids, but rather to bring them up to revere God. Pray with and for your kids so they get to know God and see how much they matter to God.

Connecting with resources

We are not equipped to handle all of life’s challenges and sometimes we need additional support. It is okay to admit that we don’t have all the answers and seek support from those who can provide us with helpful tools. Connecting with a counselor or attending a grief support group are valuable tools for getting through life’s hard seasons. Having a listening ear and a wise guide helps us to feel less alone. No matter what we face in life, God is with us and watches over our every step. God loves our teens even more than we do and God’s love never fails.

About the author — Rev. Deb Koster

Deb Koster is a producer, writer, and speaker for Family Fire. She is also an Innkeeper at The Parsonage Inn in Grand Rapids, MI where she leads marriage retreat on weekends. After over 20 years as a Registered Nurse, she completed a Master of Divinity degree and was ordained as a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. Deb and her husband Steven enjoy doing ministry together and they are the parents of three awesome young adults.

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