Treatment For Teens Coping with Grief and Loss: A Guide for Families

Our society does not give people much room or time to grieve. Many teens are not taught how to grieve or how to support others experiencing loss. Instead, they are taught that losses of all kinds are inevitable and that people learn to move on eventually. While this is true, many teens struggle with coping after loss for an extended period of time and may be in need of treatment for grief and loss. 

It is helpful for parents to learn more about how grief and loss can affect their child in order to help them process their experiences. If your teen is struggling to cope with grief and loss after a period of time, a treatment program that offers grief counseling can help them heal and gain a new perspective on life.

The guide is meant to be comprehensive, but as such, not every section will be applicable to everyone. Instead, we invite you to click on the links in the table of contents to jump to the sections that most interest you.

Table of Contents

What is Grief and Loss?

Grief is a “normal emotional response” to not only the death of someone you love, but any loss – loss of health, romantic relationships, friends, or even faith. When we lose someone or something we have held dear or have felt attached to, it is natural to feel sad, anxious, or hopeless. While people should check in and offer support, it is important to allow people time and space to grieve without judging the way they are processing their loss.
One cannot underestimate the impact of personal factors like emotional regulation, cognitive responses, secondary stressors, coping style, prior history of trauma, and access to support and resources in determining how a person responds to an event. It is true that certain types of loss happen in a way that they are more likely to be experienced as traumatic, but it isn’t a given that someone will be traumatized by an event or that everyone involved will be affected in the same way.

Types of Loss

A number of major life events can be processed as loss, not just death. Common types of loss may include:

  • Physical loss of a loved one. Grief is a common reaction to death that doesn’t have a statute of limitations. The process of grieving is often delayed when the nature of the loss is unexpected. 
  • Loss of the love of a loved one. Breakups, parent divorces, changes in friend groups, and abandonment can feel just as devastating as the physical loss of a person sometimes. Often, this loss of social support can be messy, rather than gradual. Arguments can completely warp one’s sense of self-esteem if teens believe that these hurtful messages are true. 
  • Loss of physical ability. Accidents and injuries are often life-changing events, especially when there is no time to prepare. Athletes who have had to stop playing sports due to injuries often question who they are without the activity they’ve spent years centering their identity around. 
  • Loss of sense of self. During adolescence, teens often question their sense of self. Especially after trauma and loss, it may take a period of adjustment to re-establish who they are and who they want to be. 

 

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Grief vs Depression

While grief and depression are very similar in terms of symptoms, they are considered separate issues. One major difference between a depressive episode and a grieving period is that grief tends to decrease over time, even if strong feelings may reoccur. Additionally, the depressive symptoms that people struggling with grief experience are often related to whatever caused their grief. For example, teens struggling with grief may feel guilty for the event while teens struggling with depression may feel shame about who they are. 

Like other stress experiences, grief often triggers a depressive episode for people who have a history of struggling with depression. If your teen is struggling to cope with their grief in a healthy way, over time, it may seem like they are struggling with depression. However, teens who do not have a history of depression cannot be diagnosed with depression in the first few weeks after a major loss. 

Grief vs Trauma

Following a traumatic event, it is common for teens to also experience grief--whether they are grieving over witnessing violence or death or grieving intangible things that may have been taken away from them, like their innocence, confidence, or sense of safety.

There is not a time limit on the length it takes to heal after loss that sets grief apart from traumatic grief. While there are many similarities, trauma tends to be internalized more and is associated with other emotional issues. Some ways that grief and trauma are different may include:

  • While grief reactions generally stand alone, trauma reactions include grief reactions. 
  • The most common reaction to grief is sadness. The most common reaction to trauma is terror.
  • Many people who have experienced traumatic events struggle to talk about what happened, while people who are grieving are more likely to want to talk about painful reminders.
  • Grieving is often focused on what life is like in the absence of something. Trauma distorts one’s self-image and sense of safety.
  • When grieving, many people express anger toward an event, while people healing from trauma are more likely to internalize anger or express it towards others.

 

 

How do Grief and Loss Impact Teen’s Daily Lives?

Emotional Changes

Grief often looks like depression or sadness related to the loss they’ve experienced. Some signs to look out for include: 

  • Intense sadness
  • Anger and irritability
  • Difficulty accepting that whatever caused the grief occurred
  • Excessive focus on the loss they’ve experienced or avoidance of it altogether
  • Difficulty sleeping or having dreams about the event
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Difficulty carrying out day-to-day activities or adjusting to a new routine

 

Unhealthy Coping 

For adolescents who have little experience with trauma, death, pain or stress, this will be the first time they experience the overwhelming emotions related to grief. This can be frightening and many don’t have the self-awareness to know what types of coping strategies will help. That’s why you need to talk to your teen about how they are feeling. During the grieving process, your teen might develop coping mechanisms for grief that often extend these negative feelings over time. Watch out for:

  • Deterioration of relationships with family and friends
  • Symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Substance abuse
  • Indifference to academics
  • Overcompensating for pain by being overly strong or mature

If any of these warning signs appear, get your teen to a professional grief counselor or therapist.

When Does Your Teen Need Treatment for Grief and Loss?

There is no official time limit on grief, but after a couple months, people begin to expect things to “go back to normal,” even if your teen doesn’t feel like they’ll ever go back to normal. Many teachers will be accommodating by giving extensions or excusing your absence at first. Over time, if problems coping with grief continue, it will begin to take a toll on your teen’s school performance, relationships, and plans for the future. Treatment programs that offer treatment for grief and loss are a good option for teens who are still struggling to adjust. 

How to Help Your Teen Dealing with Loss

When teens are dealing with loss, they need the support of adults or other people who have shared similar experiences.

  • Validate the pain of their loss. Many teens are in denial after loss and try to repress intense emotions. Grief requires teens to acknowledge the pain they are experiencing and to search for meaning. Reassure them that they are not expected to move on immediately.
  • Give them appropriate “breathing room.” Don’t take it personally if they are struggling to open up and talk about what they’ve experienced. Social withdrawal is a common response. They may feel distant from others and the person they were before the event. They may feel overwhelmed getting back into their normal daily routine and need more time to readjust. 
  • Let them know you are always there for them so they feel comfortable talking to you whenever they are ready. Ask open-ended questions about how they’re doing and offer to support them in whatever way they might need. Don’t judge the way they are dealing with their situation.
  • Find resources available to help your teen cope with the loss they’ve experienced.  It is common for teens to feel hopeless as they grieve and they are more likely to participate in risky behaviors. If you are concerned about how they have been coping, reach out for professional help for guidance.

Treatment Options for Grieving Teens

Outpatient Therapy. Some grief therapists in your area may specialize in working with teenagers. This is a great resource for families who believe that their child would benefit from talking to someone more regularly about the way they feel. Therapy sessions often occur weekly and are meant to monitor how they are coping. 

Residential Treatment Centers. These treatment centers work with youth struggling with mental health issues, triggered by grief and loss, that have affected their ability to enjoy hobbies, maintain healthy friendships, and cope with stressors in a healthy way. These programs are focused on helping children establish a support system and healthy coping skills. 

Therapeutic Boarding Schools. Longer-term therapeutic boarding schools are often a good fit for teens who have fallen behind in school or are struggling socially as they balance group therapy with academic support in smaller classrooms. While they offer individual and group therapy, their focus is addressing how unhealthy coping after loss has affected their academic performance and future goals.

Wilderness Therapy. Adolescents who are struggling with grief and loss may benefit from participating in adventure activities in a wilderness therapy program. A wilderness environment provides a fresh perspective for teens who are struggling to feel engaged in their day-to-day life and cope with problems. A focus on adventure activities teaches teens healthy coping mechanisms to take with them after they leave that serve as a powerful tool for self-reflection and connecting with others. 

Types of Therapy for Grief and Loss:

Individual talk therapy is one of the most common treatment options recommended for grief counseling, although it is usually more effective when integrated with other approaches. Therapists in wilderness therapy programs are trained in a variety of evidence-based modalities that help teens cope with grief and loss, including:

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) can help teens process traumatic memories.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) addresses negative beliefs that teens have developed as a result of their experiences.
  • Equine-assisted psychotherapy helps teens work through attachment issues and develop stronger relationship skills.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) teaches teens a variety of coping skills to use when overwhelmed.

Therapeutic Goals

  • Establishing a stronger internal locus of control
  • Challenging negative beliefs related to past grief and loss
  • Developing a vocabulary to talk about grief and loss
  • Identifying healthier coping mechanisms
  • Reaching out to others for support

How Does Wilderness Therapy at blueFire Help Teens Struggling with Grief and Loss?

Removed From Stressors. When teens are struggling with grief, there are a lot of factors in their everyday routine that bring up reminders of the loss they’ve experienced. It can be hard to focus on moving on from grief when they are surrounded by it. Time away from home can help teens re-center without distractions in a familiar environment.

A Healing Atmosphere. Spending a few weeks in the woods is a low-pressure environment for participants to focus on working toward their goals. This encourages them to take things one step at a time rather than getting overwhelmed by the bigger picture. Time spent outside, whether engaging in physical activity or sitting around a fire, is also associated with significant health benefits, including but not limited to improved mood, lower stress levels, and more energy.

Community Setting: Teens quickly bond with their leaders and peers in small groups, which creates a support system that encourages their progress. This social support is key for teens who have had difficulty opening up to others and feeling connected after loss, especially if they have struggled with trauma or attachment issues.

Adventure Therapy Helps Teens Rediscover Passions. Wilderness programs engage teens in a variety of fun recreational activities that they may have lost interest in while grieving that help them apply the skills they’ve learned in other types of therapy.