Losing a Parent as a Teenager: What to Expect

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The death of a parent can have a profound effect on the life of a teenager. A teen’s formative years largely depend on parental guidance and support. When a teenager loses a parent, it may be incredibly hard for them to cope with their grief.

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Teenagers dealing with grief can pose particular challenges. Teens and those trying to help them understand their sorrow may not see eye-to-eye what it means for the teen to have lost a parent. It’s sometimes difficult for adults to counsel adolescents on grief and loss because of the unique challenges facing young people as they’re making their way into adulthood.

If you’re dealing with this particular situation, there are several factors to consider when a teen loses a parent.

What Happens When a Teenager Loses a Parent?

The death of a parent during the teenage years can leave a child feeling unsafe and insecure. These concerns arise when death rocks their family foundation to the core. They may feel a sense of confusion and abandonment and find it difficult to trust those around them.

Knowing how grief affects teens is the first step in addressing the effects of their loss with them. They may experience a myriad of different things, including the following:

Dramatic behavior changes

There’s a fine line between acting out due to regular adolescent behavioral changes and because a teenager is having difficulty coping with their grief.

Though the way you define dramatic may be different for each teenager, you may recognize when they act out of the ordinary for their demeanor. 

Extraordinary pressure

A teenager may be feeling overwhelmed in dealing with their grief and trying to keep up with school or other obligations. They’ll usually put this added pressure on themselves to avoid dealing with their loss.

Teenagers go above and beyond to avoid dealing with their pain and sorrow through what is known as grief avoidance. They’ll become overly competitive at school or in sports, with their siblings, and even at home with you or a step-parent.

They may feel overwhelmed, which can sometimes manifest in unhealthy ways and may need addressing through family intervention or counseling.

Isolation

It’s not uncommon for a teenager to withdraw from friends and family as they try to make sense of their grief.

Sometimes teenagers will need to step away from friends and activities to process their parent’s death. 

Depression

When a teenager loses a parent, they may undergo bereavement depression that’ll slowly lift in time. Clinical depression is the type of depression that doesn’t ease even with time. 

Anger

Anger is one of the stages of grief that you’ll experience as part of the normal grief process. Some people will never share this emotion following a death, while others will feel angry over their loss.

Allow your teenager to talk about how they’re feeling and why. Seek out counseling to help get this emotion under control when their anger is manifesting in unhealthy ways.

Guilt

Guilt after loss comes in different forms. Experiencing different types of grief after suffering a significant loss is expected. One common form of guilt during bereavement is known as survivor’s guilt

Feeling guilty that your loved one died instead of you is a typical loss reaction in such cases of surviving an auto, or another type of accident, being at the wrong place at the wrong time, or surviving a natural disaster.

Teenagers may act out in unusual ways as a result of the grief they are experiencing. As grief manifests and people go through different stages, teenagers may be in a more sensitive spot because of their evolving feelings due to puberty and other hormonal and emotional changes already taking place. 

Here are a few ways that survivor’s guilt can come up:

Death wishes: People sometimes say they wish they were dead, without really meaning it in the literal sense. Having these thoughts is a natural reaction to grief that usually goes away without incident. 

Thinking these thoughts without having a plan of action are just thoughts. Consider online therapy or grief counseling when thoughts are leading to affirmative intentions of following through.

Substance abuse: Some grieving teens will turn to drugs and alcohol to drown out the painful emotions associated with grieving. The pain of losing a parent can be overwhelming for some teens, and they may not know how else to cope with their loss. 

Talk with your teen about the harmful effects of using drugs or alcohol, and how it can negatively impact their health and well-being.

Failing grades or truancy: Grief sometimes makes you feel like nothing else in life matters, including going to school and doing homework assignments. This lack of focus on school is only temporary in most cases, and understandable when a parent has died. 

Talk to your school teachers and administrators and ask for alternative ways to participate in school. Truancy is a serious issue in most school districts that can lead to a criminal or family court’s involvement. 

Promiscuity: Seeking solace in another person’s arms is not uncommon when grief leads to feelings of emptiness inside. These feelings are only temporary at best but can lead to other more significant issues.

Loneliness can sometimes overtake your reasoning. Consider alternate ways of filling this void. One example is to adopt a pet when you’re feeling able to take care of it. A pet provides unconditional love, companionship, and emotional support.

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How Can Losing a Parent Affect a Teenager?

The death of a parent will likely stay with a teenager for the rest of their lives. There will be several secondary losses associated with this type of death, primarily if the teenager is in a single-parent household.

Some of those losses are:

  • Their home
  • Major support system
  • Friends 
  • Step-parent and step-siblings 
  • Identity

A teenager might also suffer through significant depression or PTSD as a result of the combination of losing their parent and these secondary losses. 

Secondary losses may also include future losses such as their parent’s support when going to college for the first time, getting married, and having children of their own.

10 needs of a bereaved teenager

Famed psychologist, William Worden, a founding member of the Association of Death Education and Counseling (ADEC), lists ten specific needs of a bereaved teenager in his book Children and Grief, published in 1996:

  1. Adequate information: Give your teenager clear and unambiguous details surrounding the death of their parent and in manageable chunks. Be specific on expectations in the days and weeks following their parent’s death. 
  2. Fears and anxieties addressed: A lack of accurate information over how the parent died or the circumstances will leave the teenager feeling scared and anxious over the manner of death. Give as much information as possible in a way that won’t add to the teenager’s fear of death and dying. 
  3. Reassurance they’re not to blame: Sometimes, when a death happens, as in suicide cases, a teenager may think that the parent’s death was their fault. Reassure them that even though there may have been angry words exchanged, they didn’t cause their parent’s death. In cases of accidents such as an auto accident where the teenager was driving, reassure them that unavoidable accidents can and do happen. 
  4. Careful listening and watching: Be on the lookout for nonverbal cues about how your teen is feeling. If your teenager doesn’t want to open up to you to discuss their grief, consider seeking outside counseling. 
  5. Validation of individual feelings: Encourage your teenager to talk about their feelings openly. Let them know that it’s okay to grieve their loss and to express emotion. 
  6. Help with overwhelming feelings: Ways you can help a teenager manage overwhelming feelings of grief and despair encourage them to release their emotions while carefully monitoring the set rules and boundaries for what is considered acceptable behavior within your home. 
  7. Involvement and inclusion: Involve your teenager in the funeral planning, memorials, and death rituals that follow to gain a sense of closure.
  8. Continued routine activities: Consider keeping routines as close to what they usually are as possible to lend an air of normalcy and stability to your teenager’s life after their parent’s death. 
  9. Modeled grief behaviors: Leading by example also applies to how we grieve. A teenager will learn from your example of what it means to be in grief and mourning. 
  10. Opportunities to remember: Include the teen’s deceased parent in the celebration of life’s special moments so that they can remember them as time goes on. You can say a special prayer, exchange stories, or set a place for them at the table during special occasions and holidays throughout the year.

What Can You Say or Do to Help a Teenager Who Lost a Parent?

Although you may want to help teenagers cope with their grief, they are usually more comfortable talking with other teenagers who’ve gone through similar experiences. It helps when you connect your teenager with their peers with whom they can share their experiences. Consider seeking out local support groups through schools, churches, or other grief support groups in your area or online.  

Talk to your teen and explain to them that grief is a typical human experience. They will learn to live with it over time, and they’ll eventually start to feel better. Talk to them about the basic concepts of death and what death means to them. Here are some suggested topics and ideas to bring up to your teenager:

Four basic concepts of death

It is worth reminding them of the four concepts of death.

First, that death is irreversible, though it may sound obvious to you. With that in mind, you’ll also want to talk about how all life functions end completely at the time of death. Third, the fact is that everything that is alive eventually dies. Finally, there may be physical or medical reasons why someone dies.

Things you can say to a teenager regarding grief

  • Crying is allowed
  • Absent grief is a thing
  • You’re not alone
  • It’s normal and healthy to show emotion
  • You don’t “get over” grief
  • Don’t numb your pain in unhealthy ways

What Can a Teenager Expect After a Parent Dies

Losing a parent during your teenage years will be a life-altering experience that will forever change you. Everyone will face the death of a loved one sometime during their lives, but losing a parent when you’re still in your teens can be incredibly traumatizing.

You can expect many things to change in your life, but in time, a new normal for you will begin to emerge, and your grief will begin to heal.

If you're looking for more on helping a teen navigate their grief, read our guides on bringing teenager to a funeral and grief counseling for teenagers.


Sources

  1. Schonfeld, David M.D., and Marcia Quackenbush, M.S., M.F.T., C.H.E.S. “The Grieving Student: A Teacher's Guide,” Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc, 2010, www.archive.brookespublishing.com/grieving/Schonfeld_understand-death.pdf
  2. Worden, J. W., “Children and grief: When a parent dies,” Guilford Press, 1996. 

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