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Grieving Teens: How can we support them during turbulent times?

Kristin Avicolli, LCSW

Grief never ends, but it changes. It is a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness nor a lack of faith, it is the price of love.


Kristin Avicolli, LCSW, shares some helpful tips to support teens experiencing grief and loss.

There are many ways we can support teens through grief and loss. Many of the clients I see present with anger, frustration and worry about the world around them. When we start to dive into what is underneath these intense emotions, grief always comes to the surface. Grief about losing someone they love, grief about the fact they weren’t included in a party invite, grief about the grade they got on a test they thought they had aced, grief about the tragedies happening in our country and around the world. Big grief and little grief- it all matters. Grieving is not a linear process and there is no one way to grieve. Grief may show up suddenly when we least expect it or greet us each day predictably. Grief may also be present with joy in those bittersweet moments. What teens need to feel supported through grief varies, however in my work with teens over the last twenty years, these tips have proven helpful.

Be present. It’s that simple. When people show up for us in our lives and give us uninterrupted attention and focus, we feel cared about whether we feel like sharing our feelings or not. Saying things like, “I see you are hurting” and “I am here for you in whatever way you need me to be” and then really listening to their need for support.

Meet them where they are. Some teens want to process verbally, and others process more through art, movement or internally. Some want to talk with friends and peers more than adults. Some want to plan a time to talk in the future and not right when they get home from a long day at school. Some will talk more on long walks or car rides. What is important is to find out what works best for them and respect their wishes. When the world feels overwhelming, allowing teens to have some sense of control is powerful and will enhance connection.

Less is more. When they do open up, there is not much you need to say and often saying very few words just to let them know you are hearing them works wonders. It takes time to communicate intense emotions and when we are too quick to respond, we may miss the next few thoughts still being formulated. When we give people time and space, most can figure out what they need to do to care for themselves. Validate, reflect, name feelings and normalize. Communicate there are no good or bad emotions, and all emotions are okay. When reaching out to check in, use a variety of modalities- (e.g., text, use scaling questions like give me a number between 1-10 on how you are feeling today 1=awful, 10=great, write notes, or draw).

Give hope. It is important to sit with our teens in their darkest times and it is also important when the time is right to let them know you see some light and you know they will figure out a way to get through whatever hardship they are experiencing. We need to communicate we believe in their capacity to heal and their resilience, while also letting them know we stand beside them and can hold their emotions when they need support.

Encourage connection. Although it is important to give your teen time and space when grieving, connection with friends, family, spirituality, a therapist, activities they enjoy and nature can help with healing. Sometimes when our minds can’t get us to do anything, action is the only way. Don’t push. Start small. Distraction is okay. Make sure your teen knows how to access supports through crisis lines, grief groups, school counselors and therapists. The more they feel connected to the world around them and experience a sense of belonging, the easier it will be to heal and accept help.

Seek support. Watching your teen struggle with grief can be a lot to take in and may bring up your own history of loss. There are times when we feel we cannot cope with grief and may need more help. Often, previous losses may resurface or intensify. Reach out to your support network and seek healing in whatever way works best for you. Modeling vulnerability, self-compassion and accessing supports shows your teen you are human and trying to navigate this beautiful and tough life journey. Getting yourself support will also allow for you to have the energy and mental space to support your teen.