Clinical psychologist Dr. Cara Gardenswartz, Ph.D gives us some insight.
The tween and early teen years are hard enough in the best of circumstances. Add the death of a mother, and they can almost feel unbearable.
The period from 9 to 13 years old is a stage of development where kids really have more of a sense of what death is, and how final it is. It's the first stage they can really grasp that.
Explain in an open and honest way about what happened -- talk to them as if they are adults at this point, because they can handle the truth. Explain, then wait and pause and see what they have to say.
Teens and tweens will experience a spectrum of emotions after the death of a parent:
Teens and tweens coping with the death of a parent will first experience numbness and shock -- especially with an unexpected death like this. "It can't be true!" they might say. "I don't believe it!"
It's really important to validate those feelings rather than take them away. You might say, "I know -- it's hard for me to believe, too." Mirror their feelings of disbelief.
It's common for teens and tweens to feel anger when someone dies. A lot of people feel anger toward God. They feel anger toward themselves -- if only they hadn't taken those extra five minutes getting ready that morning, they might think, this never would have happened. They may blame the doctor. Or, in some cases, they might even blame their mom.
Teens and tweens will feel that life isn't fair after something like this. Instead of taking away those feelings, agree with them. Say, "I know -- this doesn't make sense to me either, and it's not fair."
Many teens and tweens will feel an overwhelming sadness. You could say, "You miss her so much, you can't imagine life without your mom. I know you are feeling this way right now, but there will be a point when you feel happiness again. I can't imagine what that's going to look like either, but it WILL happen."
The tween and early teen years are the time where you start to separate from your parents and push them away in order to find your own identity. You have to "devalue" the parental relationship in order to successfully form one's own identity. So losing a parent at this age can be particularly painful. There will likely be a lot of "unfinished business" -- things they wish they would have said. Teens and tweens may feel tremendous guilt for things they said, especially if they made a regrettable comment right before her death, for instance.
Depression is common after the death of a parent. Here are common signs:
- Not eating
- Not sleeping
- Isolating himself
- Grades dropping
- Using drugs, drinking
- Sexual experimentation, promiscuity
If you think your child is suicidal, it's important to seek help immediately.
The older kid in a situation like this can have a tendency to want to be the caretaker of the family -- taking care of Dad and his little brother. It's very important that this behavior is not accentuated or encouraged, because if the older child is taking care of the family, he can't take care of himself and fully mourn.
Mourning is so important, especially to teens and tweens. The four stages of mourning are:
They're going to come around to all the stages of mourning in their own time. The following will help them cope:
Do "normal" activities
Teens and tweens should be encouraged to continue activities like school sports or being with friends. They may feel guilty, like they shouldn't have fun, but they should be encouraged to do so.
Teens and tweens should be experience to talk about their feelings. But don't be afraid if your teen or tween is not ready to talk. Just say, "I'm here for you." Don't tell them how to feel. If they say they feel sad or mad, you could say, "Of course you feel sad" (following their lead). If the tween or teen is confiding in someone else, like a friend or an aunt, but not YOU, don't be upset -- just be happy they are expressing their emotions to someone.
Teens and tweens shouldn't be afraid to cry. Encourage them to do so. It's so important that they express their feelings of grief. What they are feeling now is so sad and awful. They won't always feel like this, but allow them to feel this way.
Get professional help
Tweens and teens should seek professional help from a therapist or a school counselor.
Peer support groups are particularly helpful at their age. They encourage teens and tweens to share their stories as many times as they need to, and help connect them with other kids who can relate. Because once they go back to school, most kids will not be able to relate with them. This can feel very isolating.
So many monumental things happen in this stage in life -- such as a sweet sixteen, prom, junior high graduation, bar mitzah. Each time one of these monumental stages occur, it's another time where the child is going to have to be reintroduced to grief -- another time mom is not going to be there. That's when the wound is reopened again.
|Dr. Cara Gardenswartz is a licensed clinical psychologist (License #PSY18399) who provides therapy to adults and couples, and specializes in group therapy. She has over 16 years of education, training, and experience in her field. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and went on to earn her Master's and Doctorate in Psychology at the UCLA. In addition to working with patients, Dr. Gardenswartz is a script consultant for television and film. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.|