Parenting Adolescents — 03 April 2005
How to help teens with the death of a peer.

Adolescence is a difficult time for most teens. It is a time of physical growth and development, change and self-definition. This is a period of great emotional stress, as the young people transition to adulthood. When during this period, teen-agers experience the death of a peer, all their complex emotions are further heightened. They may be at a great loss to adjust to the incomprehensible grief they feel and the lack of answers they seek. Parents should play an active role in helping and guiding their children through this adjustment process.

The most common causes of death at a young age may be
classified in the following categories:

1. Illnesses, such as cancer.
2. Accidents such as: car collisions, events of nature such as drowning at sea, skiing accidents, athletic traumas, fires or earthquakes.
3. Drug and alcohol misuse, eating disorders.
4. Suicide.
5. Violence: school shooting, fights, hazing, random killing or terrorism.

Each one of these causes brings with it a separate set of emotional components, in addition to the ones common to all losses of peers at a young age. If the cause of death was unavoidable, great sorrow and helplessness is felt. When the deceased was partly responsible for his demise, anger, frustration and guilt further compound the pain of his loss.

Adolescents are at a pre-adulthood stage of maturation and growth. This is the spring of their lives, a starting place-not an end point. Death is therefore incongruent, unexpected and extremely shocking when it occurs during this time.

Loss of a peer during adolescence further exacerbates the sense of vulnerability, confusion, fear, insecurity, bewilderment and worries in specific ways, not previously experienced by the young individual.

Grief associated with loss of a peer’s life is a new overwhelming emotion for teen-agers. They may have already lost grandparents, other relatives, or even a parent. However, the generational gap made these tragic losses more acceptable. Dealing with a death of a peer is incomprehensible, very threatening and produces intense feelings of fear, bewilderment, isolation, abandonment, emptiness and void. It is hard to fathom the explanation for the extremely premature death of a person like oneself and no words suffice to quell the pain and panic the young person experiences.

Adults are often at a loss to help their teenagers process and come to peace with this terrible loss. Reassurance to the grief stricken children that they are safe is inappropriate, promises that the pain will eventually subside feel insensitive, medical or technical explanation about why and how the friend perished are meaningless, pretending to understand what they feel is presumptuous and even words of consolation fall on deaf ears.

Parents often feel at a loss of what to say. They need to say little and listen a lot.

In their desire to help their children and as is customary in our culture, pain reduction is sought to be achieved as soon as possible. This may be a grave mistake. Grieving is a necessary process in restoring emotional balance. Any attempt to curtail the process of mourning, only compromises the healthy resolution of the trauma. Teen-agers, must grieve in their own way and for as long as they need.

Parents need to contain their own impulses to expedite their children’s quick return to their previous level of functioning. They should listen and allow the children to talk, cry, be angry, blame, question, and even isolate themselves during their grief. Adults are wise to admit that they do not have answers, and that they too share similar questions. Most of all they must be available to have the youngsters use them as a sounding board, if the teens choose to do so.

Angry outbursts, guilt statements, blaming people or God, mistrust of others, unanswerable questions, fears and anxieties, crying, sleeping or eating disorders, increased oppositional attitude toward parents, lower school performance, reduced or increased time with friends and a sense of disconnection from others, may all be appropriate short term reactions to profound grief. As unpleasant as they may be, parents should validate these emotions and refrain from demanding changes.
When any of these reactions stays acute after three months, it may require professional intervention.

Commonly, schools offer bereavement counselors to assist children in processing their questions and emotions. Many youngsters find additional solace with each other in strengthening their bond of connection. They share the same experience and feel most at ease together. Parents can facilitate these get-togethers by hosting them or providing transportation.

If your child experienced the tragic loss of a peer:

• Understand that grief for children though similar to grief of adults, is compounded by their developmental stage and fewer coping skills.
• Be clear that going through the pain of grieving is a necessary process in resuming emotional stability. Allow it to occur as needed.
• Deal with the anger, anxiety, fears, accusations, guilt, blame, tears and isolation with acceptance and grace.
• Do not attempt to explain, teach lessons, or draw helpful conclusions for your grieving child early in the process. It is unwise, unhelpful and will only block your child’s emotional access to you.
• Just listen and validate your child’s emotions.
• Admit that you, too, do not have explanations for why bad things happen to good people.
• Respect your child’s need to be with friends, not as a rejection of you, but as a soothing bonding for him or her.
• Realize that your child’s performance may be impeded for a while. It is only of concern and in need of professional help when it extends into 3-6 months.
• Well-handled grief can be a growing and maturing experience for your child. Respect your adolescent’s resourcefulness in recovering from the grief and restoring him or herself to normal life.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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