By Kelly Maynes, PsyD, and Lauren K. Ayr-Volta, PhD

Pediatric psychologists Kelly Maynes, PsyD, and Lauren K. Ayr-Volta, PhD, join the blog to help parents support teens who are going through grief and loss.

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Help your teen understand the many types of grief.

Grief isn’t just about death. It’s about loss. And many children, teens and adults experience grief all the time.

This may be especially true for teenagers who are in some kind of transition, such as between high school and college.  

Everyone experiences grief differently, but in some order or another, we all tend to progress through these stages:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Sadness
  • Acceptance

Recently, a sixth stage of grief was added: meaning.

It can help your teen to talk about this process, and name the experience they’re having.

>Related: Signs Your Child Might be Depressed or Anxious, and What to Do Next

Give your teen an opening to talk.

Many teens avoid talking about difficult topics, because the emotions attached to them seem too intense or overwhelming. But this can wind up making them feel alone in what they’re feeling, which adds to anxiety and depression. So as a parent, create opportunities to talk about loss and grief.

  • When it comes to talking about their feelings, some teens like a direct approach, and will willingly engage in a long conversation. Others may only put up with a quick “weather check” on their mood: “How are you feeling today, scale of 1 to 10?”
  • You don’t need to force a conversation, but you can create openings for when your teen is ready. You know your child best.

Build in moments of connection every day.

Family members can feel isolated even when they’re in the same room together, if they’re all doing different things. And a sense of isolation can contribute to feeling depressed.

  • Intentional, quality time together can be one of the best ways to support your teen.
  • Instead of everyone watching entertainment on their own device, pick a movie to watch together, so you can have the shared experience of laughing at the same jokes or jumping at the same scary parts. Build a puzzle. Go for a walk together.
  • Whether or not your teen wants to talk about their feelings, knowing they have family game night to look forward to, or even just a 15-minute lunch together, can ease their feelings of isolation.

Talk about fear, and maintain perspective.

Teens may worry about the next school year, and part-time jobs, and college plans. (Related: Helping Your Teen Decide What to Do After High School)

  • Talking about fears can release some of the angst attached to them. So ask your teen what’s going on, and talk through the details.
  • It might help to talk about what’s not in your teen’s control, as well as what is – like developing coping strategies for the uncertainties ahead. Use a coping toolbox to help your teen build resilience.
  • If your teen is stuck in worst-case scenarios, urge them to consider the best scenario for a moment, too. Talk about the many possibilities in between.
  • To stop racing thoughts, try focusing on the present moment. Here’s one exercise: Name five things you can see right now, four you can feel, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste. 

Normalize what your teen is feeling.

Your teen may be relieved to hear that what they’re experiencing is normal, and they don’t need to get over it right away. They may also feel some comfort in being reminded that they’re not alone in their grief.

  • Share how you personally have experienced grief or a loss (without laying all of your problems on their shoulders), and talk about how lots of people often feel sadness, anger and grief.
  • Ask how their friends deal with such losses, and what they’ve noticed other people saying on social media. Your teen’s interactions on social media can be a great conversation-starter, and give you insights into their world. (Here are tips for online safety.)
  • At the same time, be careful not to minimize your teen’s individual loss. Just because these feelings are normal and widespread doesn’t mean they’re easy.

Confirm that it’s all right to be sad – and to ask for help.

Remind your teen that grief is a process. Encourage them to take time to feel their loss.

Make sure they know that they should ask for help from family and friends, and that there are professionals who can help them too. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your teen’s pediatrician for help finding a therapist.