Understanding Grief and Loss in Adolescents: ParenTalks
The third ParenTalks of the 2022-23 academic year featured an informative discussion on how to support adolescents in navigating grief and loss.
Amy Herberman, Registered Psychotherapist and Early Childhood Educator, joined Dr. Mark Broussenko ’07, Family Physician and Hospitalist at CAMH, and Liat Benzacar, SMCS Student Wellness Officer for the 60-minute webinar geared towards parents of current students.
Herberman kicked off the conversation by explaining what grief is, what it looks like in adolescents, how parents can help support their teens in their grief, and how to promote healthy grief and resilience.
“Adolescence is an interesting age because they’re striving to be more independent and so it can be a challenge for them when they need support from friends, families, or professionals but they feel or think that they don’t need it and they don’t want to be a burden on anyone,” says Herberman. “They need to be independent and they want to show their independence so they can often push it away when they need it the most.”
Herberman explains that adolescent grief can be evident through intense emotions, isolation or avoidance, over-activity, difficulty at school, reckless behaviour, self-blame, or in exhibiting an existential crisis.
Herberman goes on to explain the best ways that parents can support their teenagers in their grief. From providing them with honest information, consistent routines, and giving them choice and control in any capacity in their daily routines to self-care and ensuring parents are caring for themselves first in order to support their kids.
“Compassionate listening and validation is probably the most important tool here to support anyone going through anything, especially teens going through grief,” says Herberman. “As parents, when we see our kids upset about something, our natural instinct is to take that away. We want to take away those big yucky feelings. We don’t want our kids to experience any form of discomfort and so we try and find a solution, we try to take that feeling away.”
She adds, “It’s our impulse to make them feel happy again so we say things like, ‘it’s going to be okay’, ‘time will make it better’, ‘let’s find a solution together’, ‘I’m so sorry, don’t cry’. We say these things and mean them in the most loving way, but it often backfires on us because it makes them angrier and more irritable because we don’t get them, we’re not hearing them, and they’re not feeling understood, so the emotion becomes more intense.”
A question and answer period wrapped up the webinar with questions on navigating the five stages of grief, how to help kids understand how to talk to and support their peers experiencing grief, and how to talk about and support teens exposed to suicide.
“What we know for certain is that talking about suicide can feel taboo and can feel scary and I think often people hold on to this belief that if we talk about it, we might plant it in somebody’s mind as a strategy or a coping mechanism with whatever difficult emotions they might be dealing with,” says Benzacar. “What we know from research, and something that we practice, is that talking about it is the most important first way to connect students not only to the emotions that they’re experiencing but also to the proper supports that they need.”
In case you missed this episode of ParenTalks, you can watch the entire recorded webinar below: