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. In order for parents to understand how to help their child, it is important to differentiate between if they are experiencing grief or trauma.
What is Grief?
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, we grieve.
Labeling grief as a “normal” response to loss does not mean that traumatic grief is an “abnormal” response, but it suggests that it is natural to feel sad, anxious, or hopeless in the aftermath of loss. 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.
What is Traumatic Grief?
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.
Traumatic grief can significantly impact one’s health, relationships, and outlook on life. Teens may take on responsibility for the event and become hypervigilant that they will re-experience the event. Even if they were not directly impacted, secondary trauma can have a similar effect as being personally victimized.
How are responses different?
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, traumatic grief tends to be internalized more and is associated with other emotional issues.
- 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.
Ways to Support Your Child Coping with Loss:
- Validate the pain of their loss. Many teens are in denial after loss and try to repress intense emotions. Mourning requires teens to acknowledge the pain they are experiencing and to search for meaning. As your teen grieves, you may feel impacted by their pain. Reassure them that it is natural to be significantly affected and 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. If you are concerned about how they have been coping, reach out for professional help for guidance. It is common for teens to feel hopeless as they grieve and they are more likely to participate in risky behaviors. Learning more about the impact of trauma teaches you how to support them better.
Solstice Can Help
Solstice West is a residential treatment center that creates a supportive space for teenage girls and assigned female at birth ages 14-18 to process loss that they have experienced and grow emotionally. We take a relationship-based approach to healing from personal trauma that encourages friendship, peer support, and mentorship through group therapy and teamwork. Our treatment model incorporates adventure therapy, fitness, artistic expression, and community service to encourage normal adolescent experiences, social skills, and independent living skills.
Contact us at 866-278-3345 to learn more about trauma and grief. We can help your family today!