The Difficulty of Grief for Teens

Death is hard. Period. Being at teen is hard. Period. But going through grief as a teen is confounding.

The smalltown community I serve was recent devastated with not one, but three teens, who passed away entirely too young, in an auto accident. I was called on, with several other fabulous counselor I work with, to respond in crisis mode to assist with the mounting grief students would experience processing the realism of death.

Hours of being with students of my own and counseling those I’ve never met, until today, brought light to sharing some key elements of teen grief.

The first emotion nearly always seems to be shock; that look of disbelief and turmoil. Floodgates open and emotions flow out so strongly that crashes any amount of sense lingering in their mind: anger, regret, sadness, guilt, blame, confusion.

Normalize the feelings.
Allow that teen to experience that emotion and remind him/her that those emotions are normal. As adults, we’ve learned through many experiences that most of the feelings we have when processes grief are normal. I’m not certain if it is raging hormones, lack of experiences, or the idea of invincible, but teens do not seem to have the same coping skills as adults. Normalize those feelings and assure him/her it is ok to feel and express those feelings. Create a condition in which that is encouraged and welcomed.

“I just wish I had (fill in the blank).”
I have heard this statement so many times. Teens who feel guilty for surviving when a classmate didn’t. Teens who regret not saying something to that person when alive. Survivor’s guilt comes in so many forms, and it can develop from those teens who barely associated with the one who passed. Again, normalize those feelings as a normal reaction in the form of grief. Challenge that teen to create a positive outcome from such devastation; empower him/her to serve using this feeling as a motivation. Suggestions: write a letter to that person, find a way to contribute to something, give blood, or volunteer in some aspect that would make the deceased proud. Be open to that teen sharing good memories of the deceased; validate the teens “I can’t stop thinking about him/her” and remind them it is OK to remember a loved one in a positive way.

Grief is a process.
Share with the teen that grief is an ongoing process, not an isolated event, where one wakes up all better tomorrow. Discuss triggers of emotions; a song, a class, an activity associated with the deceased. Encourage the teen to continue normal activities such as school and class, even if he/she doesn’t want to, even if it is going through the motions. Suggest eating healthy foods, and snacks, getting plenty of rest, and keeping a journal to write down feelings. Remind the teen to spend time with those he/she loves, even if it is difficult, spend time with family, friends, and pets. Laugh. It might sound completely out of the question, but recommend to the teen to laugh when he/she can.

Grief is hard. Your grieving, my grieving all looks and feels differently from someone else. Allow the teen to express feelings, and thoughts (in a safe way) during grief that may not necessarily make sense; because it probably doesn’t even make sense to the teen living it.  This photo reminds me not to put anyone or their feelings into boxes; each person’s owns his/her individual set of emotions.



SnapChat : Trendy or Treacherous?

What teenager or adolescent doesn’t have a SnapChat account and can be seen at most any time posing for silly selfies to send to their friends? I admit, my 13 year old niece talked me into getting an account, to which I was flooded with duck faces, shocked looks, and cheesy grins labeled with messages that could have easily been sent via text messages.



So, what’s the big deal? SnapChat is safe, right? The pictures are deleted, right? All evidence of those selfies, good and bad, are deleted after a maximum of 10 seconds…. Or are they?

I did my own research, after sending only five goofy selfies to my niece. SnapChat keeps ALL pictures. Yes, you heard correctly. Aside from the fact that there is software that can extract it from Android phones, SnapChat keeps a database of every photo sent, along with the sender/receiver’s personal information. (Who really thought those photos would be deleted permanently?)

Ok, so the pictures are not private… What about it?

Let’s talk about sexting. Seriously. SnapChat is one of the best venues for sexting. Do all SnapChat users sext? Of course not. But I’m not naive to the fact that behavior exists frequently among teenagers and adolescents. Aside from the string of humiliation, bullying, and rippling consequences, sexting can lead to dangerous legal consequences. Teenage and adolescent sexting is as known as child pornography, punishable by law. In many cases the offender that receives the picture is a teen him/herself, and STILL can be charged with possession of child pornography.

So what can you, the parent, do? (Aside from deleting SnapChat on your teen’s phone.)

Have a frank, honest discussion with your teen about the dangers of sexting, the biggest of which are legal repercussions. Ask your teenager to be honest with you about his/her behavior, both in sending and receiving SnapChats. Discuss the adolescents’ motives for participating in SnapChat and then affirm their reasons (if they are innocent) instead of telling him/her how stupid they are. An adolescent is already struggling with the idea that no on knows what he/she is going through, especially parents. Be careful with interjecting your opinion when you should be encouraging your teen to be honest with you. Try to understand a big part of his/her desire to engage in SnapChat stems from the longing to belong; and who hasn’t strived to belong? The best overall option is honesty about the dangers, and openness in discussion.


“I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine..” Dealing with Bullying

Finding Nemo is a one of my favorite Disney movies, for many reasons.  Among the most endearing characters are the three sharks that are desperately attempting to stay on a “vegetarian path.”  Who doesn’t remember the sharks reciting: “I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine.  If I am to change this image, I must first change myself.  Fish are friends, not food”?  A smile spreads across my face as I type those words.  

 However, that smile quickly disappears when I think of how applicable those same words can be for today’s young teens.  Bullying and mean girls are a prevalent topic, not only among my teenage clients, but also for my adult clients who’ve been tormented with memories of their childhood.  Certainly with the surfacing of mainstream social media, more avenues for bullying are presented.  

 What if your teenager is (embarrassingly) that mean girl or bully in his/her school?  (Yikes!!)  When questioning your child about bullying behavior, don’t be surprised when you hear “just kidding.”  While a defense mechanism, the child is really trying to deflect accountability and make it appear as if you are overreacting.  (You aren’t.)  Listen and ask, genuinely, what is going on in the child’s life that is presenting a situation where he/she feels the need to be mean.  Then, LISTEN; listen and voice understanding your teen’s his/her behavior, when applicable.  Here comes the part where he/she might shut down and focus on a far off land because what do parents know.  Question your child about whether he/she has been made fun of, bullied, or had feelings hurt.  Discuss the emotions your teenager felt, and try to parallel that the effects of his/her actions as a bully.  Empower your teen to do the right thing, even when it goes against his/her “group” of friends.  Encourage and role play with your teen about how to be different, say different, and act different.  Be supportive at all attempts even sarcastic ones.  Acknowledge and praise any interaction towards your teen trying.  Voice the positive qualities you observe in your teen.  Point out the label of bully or mean girl is not popular or respected and will eventually lead to loneliness.  

 How do parents comfort a child who is the victim of mean girls or bullying?  First, LISTEN.  While this seems obvious, most parents don’t really engage in conversation, they dominate it.  Listen to your teen and affirm his/her emotions, despite how silly they may sound.  Feel free to share you experience, but only AFTER you’ve listened to his/hers.  Next, use the opportunity to show the importance of building relationships in a positive light, instead of using someone for entertainment benefit at the expense of someone else’s emotions.  Allow and encourage your teen to role play scenarios, giving him/her guidance with how to deal face-to-face with the bully.  This allows for your child to explore boundaries he/she is comfortable expressing.  Discuss the important fact that not every hurtful word deserves a comeback and sometimes the best option is to walk away without saying anything in return.   

 Remember the sharks in Finding Nemo?  Developing and maintaining healthy, gossip-free relationships with those around us can be an example to our children.  If you find that you are not setting an that right example, use that as a foundation to change, for yourself and your child(ren).  “If I am to change this image, I must first change myself.” 



Dynamics of Touch

Is there power in touch?  Can you force feelings through creating a physical connection with someone you’ve never met?  Richard Renaldi,  has a project “Touching Strangers” where he captures affection through strangers that have never met before.  Most individuals profess and even exhibit with body language that he/she is at first uncomfortable with the intimacy.  However, the photograph captures a beautiful and true display of warmth between two or three people who’ve never met. 

Amazing that individuals can touch one another, physically and awkwardly at the beginning and somehow touch into emotions.  Imagine if we touched with affection those who are important to us?  Those who we mentor?  Those children we are responsible for raising? 

I often hear the complaint, “At that moment, I don’t want to (or don’t feel like) touching him/her,” whether that is a spouse, friend, or child.  This photography project simply proves that emotions can and will follow actions.  Reaching out and hugging, holding a hand, patting the back, can be awkward and difficult, but it can be far-reaching and facilitate extracting emotions that support that simple action; creating a foundation for connection, and a building block for developing a positive relationship. Imagine the possibilities between a parent and child…

Let us not miss an opportunity to reach out, touch physically and connect emotionally.