Supporting bereaved teenagers

How to support a teenager who is grieving

The death of a parent, sibling or other loved one is a devastating experience for any young person and often adults don’t know what to say or how to support them, especially if they are a teenager. Teenage years are a challenging time, full of hormonal changes, working out who you are, building independence, testing boundaries and taking risks. Even without the death of someone important. So when a teenager experiences the death of someone close to them, their emotions and ability to cope can feel so much more difficult and intensified for the young person and those supporting them.

The expert team at Winston’s Wish offers their advice on how to talk to a teenagers about a death, what emotions and behaviour is common in grieving teenagers and how to help them express their feelings.

What do teenagers understand about death?

Young people are starting to build a more adult understanding of death as they move into their teenage years. They are more aware of the finality of death and start to realise what this will mean for then, for example that the person won’t be there for their GCSE exams, their school prom, or to talk through their first relationship. This is the case for those who are bereaved as teenagers and those who were bereaved when they were younger, difficult feelings and emotions can re-emerge during adolescence.

How do teenagers show their grief?

All young people are individual and everyone’s grief is unique. Some young people may be more open to talk, share and be receptive to support, but always remember what are normal developmental stages during the teenage years.

Confiding in their friends

Young people’s friends become so much more important to them during their adolescence and they often start to break away from using parents as a confidante and start sharing everything with their friends. Ensuring that they have space and time to see friends is important, whilst giving them time and opportunities to open up to a parent as well.

Avoiding their friends

Some young people may avoid their friends, as they now perceive themselves as different and that their friends won’t understand and can’t relate to them. This becomes another loss that they have to face and need help to manage and come through.

Wondering ‘what’s the point?’

During their teenage years, young people are starting to question the meaning of life and the afterlife. The death of someone important can cause them to reflect more on this or consider ‘what’s the point?’ Exploring their thoughts and validating their feelings is important. It can also help them to know that this is a very normal feeling of grief.

Caring for the rest of the family

Sometimes, teenagers take on the protective role of the family, feeling that it is their job to step up to care for everyone. Yes, teenagers can benefit from helping out, but this needs to be balanced with what they can manage emotionally. It’s fine to help with ideas for the funeral, or help out with chores, but they need to know that it’s not their job to support everyone else’s grief. They also need time to grieve and express their feelings, be supported by others and have time out.

Being unconcerned about everyone else

Some teenagers can almost appear uninterested and unconcerned by other people’s grief, and this can feel very hurtful and challenging to manage. However, this is where understanding that this can be a very normal reaction to most things in the teenage years – it’s not necessarily personal, just that teenagers struggle with empathy at the best of times, so why would they be able to manage to do this at the worst of times? Recognising that they too are finding the emotions just too big to take on themselves, let alone others’ feelings, can diffuse the frustrations and emotions this can raise.

Telling your teenager about a death

It’s important to give teenagers clear and honest information about the death and to answer their questions. Young people can easily use the internet to find more information about the death and some of this may be insensitively written and painful to read. If this is something they wish to explore, encourage them to do this with you or to share what they are finding. Explain that often journalists write to sell their pages, and so what is written may be wrong or unfairly portrayed.

Let your teenagers know that any question is okay to ask, even if they fear it may upset you. Help them to understand that ‘the worst has already happened’ and talking about it cannot make this worse for you. In fact, it would help you if you knew that they would talk with you when they needed to. Knowing this, they may be more likely to share their concerns and thoughts, rather than holding them in or looking elsewhere for answers.

Getting your teenager to talk to you

Teenagers can be resistant to conversations with parents at the best of times. However, what is important is that you offer this opportunity to them on a regular basis. This is a careful balance of not pressuring them hourly, but mentioning once or every couple of days, perhaps sending a text to say ‘you are there and if they want to talk, just say’.

What can happen is that they come to you at the most unexpected or inconvenient time. However, we would always say grab the opportunity, it may not come along again. It may mean being late for school or late to bed, but the odd late or missed appointment will be outweighed hugely by your child opening up to you and starting to express their grief.

Who can I talk to about this?

You can speak to our experienced team of bereavement professionals for guidance on supporting grieving children and young people. Call us on 08088 020 021 (8am-8pm, weekdays), email or use our live chat (8am-8pm, weekdays).

Our Winston’s Wish Crisis Messenger is available 24/7 for urgent support in a crisis. Text WW to 85258.

Other resources you might find helpful

Help 2 Make Sense website
Our young people’s website

Advice and guidance for bereaved young people and stories from other teenagers sharing how they have coped with their grief.

You Just don't understand - Winston's Wish
You Just Don’t Understand

Our specialist book is designed the help families and professionals who are supporting bereaved teenagers.