How to Support Grieving Teens During COVID-19

What many teens are experiencing right now is defined as grief.

Spring is always an exciting time for our kids. The new year begins and they get to start over with a fresh perspective. They make resolutions, put away winter clothes, and spring is in bloom as they look forward to a new sports season. At school, they get to finish up final reports/tests and projects….all leading up to the last day of school and the beginning of SUMMER! If you have a senior, it’s even more glorious. Many receive their college acceptances, they have senior week activities, banquets, parties, prom, and graduation. I think most of us can look back on those days leading up to graduation with so much joy and anticipation. Starting a new chapter in one’s life post high school is a momentous occasion. Some teens are deciding to take a discovery (gap) year, starting their first jobs, some are taking extended summer trips, while others are just happily prepping and planning for freshman year. In light of COVID-19, this generation experienced none of these “rights of passage”. Graduation for many may seem lackluster, anticlimactic, and definitely confusing. This should be one of the most joyous times in their lives, but instead, they feel sad, angry, let down, and possibly overwhelmed.

What they are experiencing is grief. Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. Grieving has 5 stages. Understanding these stages may help parents and teens better deal with the present situation brought on by COVID-19.

The first stage of grief is denial. It’s hard to wrap our brains around the term global pandemic, so it’s easier for many teens to try and just put it out of their mind instead of facing it head-on. Many teens are in serious denial that there is a real threat, that people can spread it, catch it, and ultimately die from it. So the next time, your teen starts talking about summer vacation or the next school year, in terms that don’t seem to match up with the state of world affairs, step back and take a pause. It’s important to acknowledge their hope and/or”wishful thinking” but its also important to bring them back to the present realities of the situation. Thye can be hopeful but not as a tactic to avoid their very real and present feelings. They need both.

The second stage is anger. No one wants to shelter-in-place but for adults with life experience, we understand that this will pass. If you’re a teen, you can’t see the end in sight because you have no similar previous experiences telling you that everything will be ok. This is one-time parents don’t have all the answers and that can be scary. Teens are frustrated with being stuck at home and their spring semester has been completely hijacked which would cause anyone to feel angry. For may teens, they have no clear outlet for something like this so they misdirect their anger at mom and dad (and maybe their siblings.) As a parent, acknowledge your understanding of what they are experiencing, show empathy, and try to share with them better ways for dealing with their anger.

The third stage of grief is bargaining. By nature, teens need and want to be around other teens to socialize.  Because of social distancing—this is being compromised and challenged. Many teens will try hard to negotiate with their parents to see their friends right now. Pestering like a broken record in some cases; they can be relentless. Remind them that social distancing is not just for them but for all those they encounter. We are unclear how some people can be carriers and not show any symptoms. Exposing oneself puts the whole family at risk. Have them set up more zoom chats, create online challenges with friends, and/or find new online communities with people who have the same interests and hobbies. This can actually expand their interests and introduce them to new things.

The fourth stage is depression. Teens are sad about school and not seeing their friends. They can’t just hang out, go to practice or any other after school activity. Their daily routines and activities have been completely removed. That’s a lot of loss to consider in one short period of time, not to mention the devastating loss of loved ones due to the virus. It’s can all feel very overwhelming and out of control. Signs of depression can be, inability to focus, crying for extended periods of time, loss of interest for things that used to interest them, loss of appetite, feeling lethargic but not able to sleep, and more than usual self-isolation in their rooms. Make time for more family activities like movie nights, cooking dinner together as a family, playing games indoors and outdoors (safely). Find a balance between giving them space but not letting them isolate for extended periods of time.

The fifth and final stage of grief is acceptance. Teens who reach the fifth stage are in a place of acceptance and understand that “this too shall pass.” They realize it’s useless to resist a global pandemic and surrender. If they can reach this stage, their emotions will stabilize, and they will start to experience a calm that comes from accepting what they cannot change. Then they can look at the situation more clearly, let go of control and attempt to plan accordingly. Ultimately, they will become more flexible in their thinking and lose those rigid expectations for what was.

*It’s important to remember that grief isn’t linear and doesn’t follow a scheduled timeline. When dealing with grief a person may go in and out of stages; sometimes many in one day. Your teen can be happy one moment, crying the next and then expressing misdirected anger. It’s challenging for a parent, but it’s all part of the grieving process. If you find your child in a place of acceptance and calm that’s great, but try not to project your frustration if they move out of that stage and back into one of the others. As a source of support, be compassionate and be present. They are doing the best they can. If there is one positive coming out of this situation it’s that your teens are gaining incredible coping skills during this difficult time that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

There are a few interesting resources that may be helpful during this time beyond the general recommendations about staying active, eating healthy, and sticking to a sleep routine. There is a wellness tool (and mobile app) for mind and body called My Strength where you can create a personalized program with interactive activities, in-the-moment coping tools, inspirational resources, and community support. You can track goals, log current emotional states, and identify ways to improve your awareness and change your behaviors.

The other is called The Corona Diaries. This is a website that documents the pandemic through 2-minute personal stories from around the world. You can hear how others are coping and share your own story, which is always cathartic. This can be a powerful way to feel heard, connected, remove isolation, and build a stronger understanding of community beyond your own neighborhood, city, state, and even country.

Lastly, if you were thinking about getting a pet, now really is a perfect time. A pet can serve as a source of comfort and calm and give your kids a sense of purpose/responsibility so they can stop focusing on loss even for a short while.

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