Helping Teens Cope With Death

For a child, death and trauma often go hand-in-hand. Further, explaining death can be hard for parents, especially if the parents are grieving the death themselves. Death can be scary and can change a child’s life. For teens, death may carry a depth of understanding that the teen may not be ready to experience. The death of a loved one will stick with teenagers and requires time to process the experience in order to heal.

The Stages of Grief

People generally go through 5 stages of grief, teens included. 

The 5 stages of grief include:

  1. Denial: Some children will react immediately and grieve openly. Other children can’t process right away, as their brain tries to protect them from extreme emotions. The child may express no emotion, limit change, and isolate themselves from anything that would contradict their denial. Adults do this as well, but in children, the adults in their life who are grieving may miss the signs and think that the child is okay or the loss hasn’t significantly affected them when that’s not necessarily the case.
  2. Anger: Children get angry, especially teens. They may even be angry at the person who died, or they could become angry with anyone who imposes change on them or tries to connect. They need space to grieve and work through this anger and, in some cases, require therapy to learn healthy methods of expressing that anger that doesn’t harm themselves or anyone else.
  3. Bargaining: This stage is a way for people to bargain with people in their life, with themselves, or with a higher power. The child may decide that if they do something good, things will change. It can lead to a lot of disappointment and can happen concurrently with denial.
  4. Depression: The depression stage comes with intense symptoms like sadness, lethargy, irritability, the need to sleep more, and hopelessness. The child may also be in intense bereavement or feel like nothing will ever be okay again. It’s important to give the child as much support as you can during this time. Though this is different than clinical depression, the effects are similar, and you’ll need to help them process, so the loss doesn’t become long-lasting trauma.
  5. Acceptance: At this stage, the child has accepted that the death is final, and they may be ready to find ways to heal through therapy or ending self-imposed isolation. Acceptance does not mean that the child is “over it” or that they have recovered. Acceptance simply means they know things will be different, and they’ve come to terms with it in their minds. Their actions may still reflect other stages of grief.

It’s important to remember that grief is non-linear. These stages of grief can happen in any order at any time, sometimes several can happen at once. Exercise patience and give the child space to grieve. 

Bereavement in Teens

According to The Institute of Medicine, grief in children is different at different stages. There are immediate reactions, which the child exhibits at the very first occasion of hearing the news that a loved one has passed. For many, especially teens, stunned silence, confusion, complete lack of emotion, or desire to walk away from the situation may be the immediate reaction. For others, crying, bargaining, asking questions, and emotional reactions will occur immediately. These can look different for different kids. 

There are also intermediate reactions. These are long-term reactions that children will carry with them as they grow. Such reactions may cause mental health problems or issues with decision-making down the road if not properly addressed. Intermediate reactions are potentially more dangerous and harmful than immediate reactions, but far fewer studies determine how they affect children once they reach adulthood. It is common for small children who experience loss to only process and go through grief later on when they come to a higher understanding of that loss. 

How to Help

Teens and younger children will always need continued support when facing the loss of a loved one. It requires continuous home care, meeting basic needs, and emotional support. When a child loses someone, they may need therapy to talk through their feelings and learn healthy coping methods. The caretaker should encourage and provide emotional support for the child. 

Routine and safety are also important to help children process their thoughts concerning their grief. It is important to make them feel safe, show them they have support, and love them through it. Understand that children can learn to grieve in healthier ways. 

When a child experiences loss, they may not react to that pain until later. Depending on the circumstances, there may be trauma associated with that loss. Even if a child is very young when a loved one passes away, they may experience delayed processing that manifests when they’re older, perhaps in teen and early adulthood. It’s important that the child has loving and supportive caretakers who can help them every step of the way. If you fear your child has unresolved trauma from losing a loved one and has mental or behavioral issues as a consequence, then it is time to get help. At Havenwood Academy, our professional staff can help your child grieve in healthy ways and give them strategies for success as they grow into adulthood. We focus on the needs of teenage girls, including helping them cope with trauma following a death. To find out more, reach out to us today by calling (435) 586-2500.


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