Theo, 17, watched as his best friend overdosed on prescription pain medication and alcohol. He has been demonstrating risky behaviors such as driving recklessly without a seatbelt while intoxicated, walking in the middle of Washington Road at nighttime and playing “chicken” on the T tracks. His parents have attempted to talk to him about his friend’s death but Theo reports that he is “fine and not sad about it, just a little freaked out.”
Samantha, 12 years old, lost her father in a car accident. She has been struggling with her schoolwork, complaining of headaches and nausea, having nightmares, and has become excessively clingy to her mother.
Tristan, five years old, has been showing some confusing behaviors since his mother left the family six months ago. He began having toileting accidents even though he has been toilet trained for more than two years. He stopped speaking and has been communicating with gestures and grunts. He becomes angry at the slightest provocation and physically fights with his brothers and sisters over almost anything.
While different in many ways, these three are all experiencing the same thing: Grief. Children experience grief differently than adults and as such, must be treated differently. While adults may experience the grieving process for months or years at a time, children do not sustain their feelings of grief for long periods. Instead, they move in and out of grief in shorter, more frequent intervals, often experiencing grief in blocks. People may observe a young person laughing and having fun, and thus assume that they are no longer grieving. Under that assumption, children may no longer receive the support they need, but they might just be taking a “time-out” from the grieving process. Because they don’t consistently sustain their grief in overt ways like many adults, it may take children longer than adults to process the events that brought them grief.
Children’s grieving processes vary depending upon their age and maturity level. Young children may not understand the finality of their loss, and may need very concrete and specific information about it. Allow them to drive the conversations. Pre-teens are going through a tumultuous time with many emotional and social challenges. Their grieving may affect schoolwork and social relationships, and may be expressed in extremely emotional ways. Older teens have a strong need to appear independent and may hide their emotional struggles in the grieving process.
While individuals at different maturity levels may show different grief reactions, the help these individuals need is similar. Maintaining structure in their lives in the midst of a loss may be difficult, but it is important so that the children don’t feel that their whole world is falling apart. Allow children to express their grief, no matter how long ago the loss occurred. Don’t try to take away grief; trying to “cheer up” someone is usually not helpful. Instead, be there to talk and listen. Encourage children (especially preteens and teenagers) to stay connected to their peers. Allow children to express anger—it is a normal reaction to loss. Finally, don’t be afraid to seek help. We can help you to provide the safe harbor that a bereft child or teen needs. Counselors at Outreach Teen & Family Services are available to assist you and your child in navigating this emotionally difficult time.
*Theo, Samantha and Tristan represent typical Outreach clients. Details do not correspond with any specific case in order to protect client anonymity.
Outreach Teen & Family Services  is a nonprofit, confidential counseling service. We offer counseling and educational programs to teens and parents that are affordable, accessible and discreet; all within a welcoming, supportive environment.