Teenagers' understanding of death

Young people or teenagers have developed a greater understanding of death, the long term implications of losing someone close and are more keenly aware of the emotional aspects than their younger counterparts.

Due to the developmental changes taking place within the young person at this time their reactions to death are likely to be extremely intense. Many young people will reflect on the injustice of the death asking why the person who has died had to die and they will be considering in greater depth the notion of fate.

The bereaved young person is likely to become concerned about who will pay the bills or care for them if the person who has died was their primary caregiver. The bereaved young person is likely to have a wider social network which they are more likely to seek support from them than their immediate family as they struggle to create an identity independent from that of their family.

The young person’s tasks of grieving are very similar to that of an adult but the young mourner is often unable to manage the strong emotions that bereavement entails and can therefore present as being extremely angry and even end up in physical fights. Some bereaved young people can revert to childish behaviour in order to relocate some security and normality in their lives where as others might try to “grow up too fast” and see themselves as taking on adult roles.

It is essential to remember that young people are not adults and should therefore not be burdened with adult roles. Like all children and young people, bereaved teenagers need to be allowed and encouraged to share how they are feeling and what frightens them.

There can be a tendency for young people to try and avert their emotions or bottle them up by avoiding the family or by assuming the role of an adult. If this happens, gentle encouragement is needed for the young person to open up and communicate their feelings. Sometimes a bereaved young person may become involved in risky behaviours in an attempt to manage their grief and its associated emotions.

For example, some bereaved young people may use alcohol or drugs as a way of self soothing. Often the alcohol / drugs act as an anaesthetic to the pain they are experiencing. Self harming can also be employed by bereaved young people in an attempt to help them cope with their sadness. If the bereaved young person is self medicating or harming themselves help should be sought.

Key points to remember

  • A bereaved young person may appear to be grieving like an adult but they are not an adult and should be treated as a young person.
  • The bereaved young person shouldn’t be burdened with tasks that a responsible adult can undertake.
  • Grieving young people may prefer to speak with their friends or people outside of the immediate family about the death. This should be encouraged.
  • Due to the developmental changes that a young person will be undergoing, the emotions related to the death of someone close may be very intense.
  • The young person needs to be encouraged to express how they are feeling and the emotions they are encountering.
  • Regressive behaviour may occur within the bereaved young person.
  • If a young person is self medicating or self harming as a response to their grief professional advice should be sought.