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How Teens and Tweens Deal with Death

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Clinical psychologist Dr. Cara Gardenswartz, Ph.D gives us some insight.

Actress Natasha Richardson and her sons

Clinical psychologist Dr. Cara Gardenswartz, Ph.D: Prince William and Prince Harry were 16 and 12 when their mother died. Natasha Richardson's sons Micheál and Daniel are 13 and 12.

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
- Restlessness
- 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:

- Denial
- Anger
- Sadness
- Acceptance

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.

Our thoughts go out to Natasha Richardson's family.

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16 comments so far | Post a comment now
Brooke March 19, 2009, 10:25 AM

I lost my dad at 16 and this is pretty much dead on. I don’t know that the order is correct but the feelings described certainly are. I feel for these kids.

Anonymous March 19, 2009, 10:37 AM

my mom died of cancer when i was 13. i agree-this really covers it

Counsellor at Journeys-CBLS March 24, 2009, 1:40 PM

I counsel breaved children and young people at Journeys-CBLS (in London England). young people describe the many feelings highlighted in this article. The affect of such emotions should not be under estimated. Still, many young people tell me, if there had been someone to listen to them, they wouldn’t be seeing me. Not all young people require therapy. What helps? Young people say:
 To have the bereavement acknowledged and have the opportunity to talk about the person who has died if they wish
 To understand that what they are feeing is normal, and whatever they are feeling is accepted by those around them
 To know that there is someone in school who will support them if they get upset
 To have their questions answered honestly, in a way that they can understand.
Sometimes a caring friend or teacher is what the young person really needs.

Sandra March 31, 2009, 3:51 PM

Thank you MOMLOGIC for explaining how we should talk to our children.

Robert W, (Brentwood, CA) April 2, 2009, 12:24 AM

This is a very timely and helpful article. Thank you Dr. Gardenswartz.

Deborah P  April 7, 2009, 12:25 AM

Dr. Gardenswartz did an excellent job of explaining things thoroughly, clearly and concisely,in a language I can understand. Her knowledge and expertise is much appreciated. I look forward to reading more of her articles in future.

Marge April 12, 2009, 9:27 PM

Thank you for your help with this very delicate matter!

Tiffany April 13, 2009, 12:45 AM

My father died instantly when I was 16. The first couple of months I was in total denial! It had honestly felt like he was playing a big bad joke on me and was going to come walking in the house any minute! Once I realized he really was gone, I rebelled!! I didn’t want to answer to anybody and felt life was pretty much pointless. I just thought that I could do whatever I want and consequences were never too harsh since my family felt sorry for me & never disciplined me in return! It took me about a year for me to accept the fact that he was gone and that he wouldn’t have wanted me to live the life I was living. I think it’s important to remind children who have lost their loved one, that their parent would want them to live life as if they were STILL alive. Remind them that they are watching from above & are with them no matter what. I made the decision to stop dwelling on the past and focus on the future and make my father proud! There are some things you can’t change, but it’s up to you on how you can learn & grow from it!

Amanda June 2, 2009, 12:04 PM

It’s so hard to tell your children about death. I’ve now read both this article and the one on preschoolers and death. Do you have advice about elementary school age Dr G?

Phedra July 1, 2009, 7:22 PM

Good afternoon. Be careful that victories do not carry the seed of future defeats.
I am from Islands and learning to read in English, give please true I wrote the following sentence: “If the cat flea treatment offers thirty days of continual flea destroying power you know you are paying for it.”

With respect :(, Phedra.

Patia September 5, 2009, 3:37 AM

Hey. We do not believe if we do not live and work according to our belief.
I am from Denmark and learning to write in English, give please true I wrote the following sentence: “In this date the side configuration in the lieu should service the potential of either the rule or the payment of the monarchy equipment.”

Waiting for a reply :-(, Patia.

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