Parenting our Grieving Teens

"… I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.” ~Stephen Chbosky

A family member died. Your parents divorced. A friend was diagnosed with cancer. A classmate overdosed. The world turns upside down, and once-in-a-lifetime moments disappear. Where grieving teens exist, parenting challenges arise. From adolescents to young adults, our grieving children require our parental understanding, awareness, and effective grief-skills practice.

Understanding our Teens’ Challenges

God created humanity with body, soul, and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Each part affects the other creating an internal cycle (Romans 12:1-3). Grief causes deep and profound feelings, usually feelings of loss or guilt. Some teens don't yet have words or ways to express, process, or even label their emotions, and the strong tumultuous feelings spurt out in unhealthy ways.

We consider grief an emotional challenge, but mental processes affect our souls and biology too. Grief impacts your teen's physical health, faith, motivation, and thinking as well. Grief most impacts developmentally growing areas, including abstract-thinking and forming a self-identity.

Grief creates a significant challenge for budding abstract-thinking abilities. As teens grow to perceive the the depths of life, they ponder loneliness and death concepts. But negative thoughts and feelings can intensify each other--creating a downward spiral. Grief is real and needs processing, but an overactive focus on death distorts life.

As teens begin to experience the wider world of adults, they naturally being to wonder where they will fit. Identity formation requires shifting focus from family to peers. Grieving impacts these shifts. Some teens seek isolation. Others become hyper-social. Both can be unhealthy coping methods to avoid confronting deep emotions and questions. Confronting them can cause explosive reactions, even when they understand the behaviors may not be healthy.

Parenting Challenges

In Much Ado about Nothing, William Shakespeare wrote, “Everyone can master a grief but he that has it.” Parents still need to parent despite our teens’ grief affecting us. A grieving teen needs a parent more than ever. But we have our own challenges:

  • Our internal cycling challenges us. Thoughts and emotions spin as we lose situational control. We increase teen-care while decreasing self-care. Our teens need us too much to destroy our health.
  • Our thoughts frequently confuse our faith. We question why God allows our teens’ pain. We become angry. Our anger shames us.
  • Our parent-teen interactions shift. Our teens’ changes bewilder us. They need us. We offer help, and they refuse. We overreact, feeling frustrated as our “good kids” spiral downward.
  • Grief’s unpredictability tries us. Just when it appears to be resolving, grief suddenly reappears and intensifies. It catches us off-guard. Special moments--like prom and graduation--magnify loss and become bittersweet. Grief steals joy.

We can find ourselves challenged beyond comprehension.

Grief-Skills to Practice

However….while grief challenges, it also enriches. Grief provides rare growth and learning opportunities. Loss magnifies appreciation. Faith blossoms.

It’s just… how do we get there from here?

Build your parent-teen connection

We can help our teens best when we have a strong relationship. These practices can help make it stronger:

  • When together physically, be present in attitude and attention (Deuteronomy 11:19).
  • Find and focus on their pluses without pretending the minuses don’t exist (Philippians 4:8).
  • Do the right, hard stuff, when necessary (Hebrews 12:5-11).
  • Don’t deliberately provoke them (Colossians 3:21).
  • Pray with and for them (Ephesians 6:4).
  • Have fun together (Proverbs 17:22; Psalm 126).

A quick encouragement: consistently eating meals together strongly improves our teens’ odds of future success. Practice doing it without electronics (see #1).

Decrease the impact of grief

Use your time together to practice these basic principles:

Listening: The more we listen, the more we understand. Show you care and understand by paying attention to the way your teen feels. If they seem sad, or angry, or fearful, name it. When we understand them, we can carry on an intelligent conversation. When they know we understand them, they listen more to what we say. James emphasized, “…You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” (James 1:19, NLT).

Questioning: Our teens ask, “Why do the people we love leave us?” or “If God loves me, how come he let this happen?” Try asking “what do you think?” before just answering. Ask thought-provoking questions and remain willing to discuss hard realities in respectful ways. Don’t pretend you know everything; point to God’s answers (Isaiah 55:8-9). Thinking skills and self-confidence rise dramatically when they find success (Proverbs 17:28; 1 Corinthians 3:18).

Demonstrating: Corresponding words and actions build trust. Grief provides opportunities to live out some really difficult abstract and biblical concepts like: patience (James 1:2-5), trust (Proverbs 3:3-5; Psalm 23:4), and contentment “in all things” (Philippians 4:11).

Despite our best efforts, we will still not like some reactions. We will still argue. Well, we prayed for “normal,” right?

So we must remember to understand our teens’ grief, recognize our own challenges, and practice our best known parenting skills. Give it all to God, and he can do amazing things.

About the author — Debi Mitchell, MS, LMFT

Debi Mitchell is an Indiana Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Chicago Christian Counseling Center. Debi has extensive experience working with adolescent behavioral and emotional issues, family counseling, grief/loss, trauma, depression, anxiety, and working through difficult adjustments to life changes. Her greatest desire is to reflect the light of Christ in the midst of life’s dark moments.

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