The concept of grief and loss has presented itself as a challenge to overcome for teenagers and pre-teens. Pre-teens are between 9-12 years old, while teenage years range between 13-19 years old. It is a sensitive time as children are entering the middle childhood and adolescence stage. Children develop their personalities, cognition, emotional intelligence, skill sets, problem-solving, and simply learning to navigate life. When faced with loss, children may be caught off guard and be unsure how to resolve internal dilemmas. And while most adults have experienced grief and loss, the method in which teenagers and pre-teens process loss will impact their development. Loss for pre-teens and teens comes in many forms, like a death of a loved one, mourning a relationship, the end of school, etc. Feelings of extreme sadness, symptoms of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, frustration, confusion may all present during this time. Allowing pre-teens and teens to process through the natural steps of grief is a step in personal development and self-awareness. The Kubler-Ross model lists multiple stages of grief, including shock, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
The Shock stage is the initial moment of realization that a child is experiencing loss or grief. Teenagers and pre-teens respond differently than adults to shock; some feel unwell, anxious, numb, etc. Although emotions are high during this time, they might suppress emotions. Shock may last a few days, even several weeks, when experiencing a tragedy of loss or grief in any form. Being in a state of disbelief is a natural coping mechanism that will temporarily protect their mental state. Part of experiencing shock is associated with denial. They have not yet acknowledged the traumatic event that can cause extreme pain. One may be avoidant of the situation and may experience being numb and confused. During this time, teens may not want to speak about their loss and might try to escape intrusive thoughts surrounding grief. It is difficult to acknowledge the reality of grief; therefore, denial is also a natural coping skill to delay feelings of pain associated with loss.
Once a teen and pre/teen has passed shock and denial, they may feel flooded with feelings of anger and frustration. Teenagers and pre-teens have intense emotions and difficulty processing their emotions safely. They’re still developing and learning how to cope when faced with challenging situations. This experience of loss may be the first real-life scenario that is challenging their emotional ability to cope. A teen may displace their emotions and feelings of anger towards a person, situation, family/friends, life, and even towards themself, which is part of grief. Teenagers often engage in risk-taking behavior when emotional. Risk-taking behavior may include engaging in dangerous activities, increased use of drugs/alcohol, socializing with new crowds, etc. It is essential to allow your teenager to feel anger and encourage them to channel these feelings in a safe environment. Pre-teens may need even more support during this time of heightened emotions and being overwhelmed. Pre-teen’s feelings of anger may have a negative influence on mood and affect. Long-term effects can result in social conflict, grades dropping, and isolation. Encouraging healthy coping skills to manage anger may include journaling, talking with friends, meditating, drawing/coloring, listening to music, playing sports, etc.
During the bargaining stage, the word “if” is commonly used. Teens may begin to wonder what they could have done differently to be in a different situation. Part of bargaining may include intrusive and even irrational thoughts. Bargaining with oneself, or even with others, is a sign that they are trying to understand the circumstances and find meaning in what happened. Giving context to a painful situation is a sign of progress in coping with grief. A pre-teen may begin to ask questions to others who understand their circumstance or knew the person they lost, which is part of maintaining an open dialogue and verbally processing the loss. Pre-teens and teens may ruminate on unhealthy thoughts associated with the past and may internally negotiate with themselves. While these thoughts are part of moving through grief, it’s helpful to offer reassurance. Support teens and pre-teens by letting them know they have a support network, others who understand and show unconditional care for children during this process.
Symptoms of depression are commonly associated with loss, especially as teens and pre-teens are sensitive to grief. They may feel helpless, lost, unmotivated, decrease in appetite, lack of sleep, oversleeping, and sadness. These are symptoms of experiencing grief and part of moving through the motions of processing the loss. Pre-teens and teenagers may express these internal feelings of depression along with developmental concerns, behavioral responses, or mood swings. Pre-teens/teenagers may be more emotionally sensitive, attached, or even feel abandoned. Be aware of these depressive symptoms and how symptoms are affecting the developmental process while offering support during this time. Ensure that a routine continues, along with encouraging coping skills. Facilitating this process will allow pre-teens and teenagers to overcome depressive symptoms. Try doing new things, different outdoor activities that teens enjoy with familiar friends. Being around positivity and developing new skills will reinforce their support network. Teenagers will then realize they can live life while still processing grief.
The next stage is grief, one of the final areas of processing through a traumatic life event and processing the emotions associated with loss. Accepting the situation and learning to live a new life is a step towards healing. Being in a state of acceptance does not mean teens and pre-teens feel the same as before their experience began. Some children may still feel unhappy, and others should respect their feelings. But they are learning to re-create happier days and lean on others for support and help. Part of the acceptance stage is embracing a support network, resources, therapy, support, to reinforce feelings of acceptance. Time is one of the most natural parts of this process, and as time goes on, healing and accepting loss flows easier.
The stages of grief may not pertain to everyone; pre-teens and teenagers may experience none, some, or phases at different times. Some teens may skip an area or be in one place longer than anticipated. Others may enter one phase and regress backward. There is no specific rule book on processing grief, as everyone will have a different experience with loss. Pre-teen’s and teenagers’ mental capacity, emotional availability, and physical health will influence their grieving process. There are a few additional risk factors that may make processing grief more difficult for pre-teens and teenagers. These may include an unexpected tragic death, death by homicide or suicide, accidental death, witnessing a death, death by illness, divorce, etc. When these situations include the death of a parent, sibling, close friend, or relative, there may be heightened symptoms associated with trauma. Although time helps to heal the feelings of grief, some may not feel relief for up to several months. If symptoms are worsening over time or persistent, it is beneficial to seek external support. External support networks can work with your pre-teen /teenager to process grief in a safe environment. In addition, bereavement groups allow your child to connect with others who have experienced a similar situation. Processing grief in a group environment encourages teenagers/pre-teens to socialize, create bonds, and build a network to lean on during difficult periods. Perspective and experience with grief vary for everyone, and we hope this piece provides a sense of relief for teens and pre-teens experiencing grief and loss:
“As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage, and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.
In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything…and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.
Somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O’Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out. Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to. But you learn that you’ll survive them. And other waves will come. And you’ll survive them too.”
Kübler-Ross, E. (2015, Feb 1). The Kübler-Ross model. commonly known as the five stages of grief. (https://hdsa.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/13080.pdf)
Brown, C. (2020, Nov 17). What is Big “T” vs little “t” trauma?
Ofield, T. (2017, Jul 7). Grief from the Perspective of an Old Man. (https://www.ofieldfuneralhome.com/grief-from-the-perspective-of-an-old-man)