Help Teens Through Emotional Pain from the Death of a Loved One

Contributor: Rachael Mattice is the Content Manager for Sovereign Health Group, an addiction, mental health and dual diagnosis treatment provider. Rachael received her bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Purdue University.

girl-619689_640Chronic pain in teenagers is usually associated with physical pain; however, emotional pain is also a form of chronic pain. Emotional pain is an unpleasant feeling of a non-physical origin. In other words, pain does not need to be seen to be felt.

Losing a loved as a young teenager or adolescent is incredibly hard. Bereaved teenagers portray many signs of grief and it doesn’t help when adults tell them to be strong. Most adults have dealt with tough situations and death, and their brains are fully developed which enables them to understand their emotions. Teenagers, on the other hand, are still learning how to deal with tough situations and emotional feelings.

Emotional Maturity in Teens Is Still Developing

In fact, the frontal cortex of the teenage brain, which is responsible for emotion, decision making and impulse, is not fully wired yet and therefore might cause teenagers to act out when dealing with the emotional pain of losing a loved one.

Teenagers are in an in-between stage; they are no longer children and not yet adults. Their emotional maturity does not match their physical maturity, so they still require role models, teachers, rules, and coaching, especially in life-changing situations like losing a loved one.

The grief that teens experience often comes suddenly and unexpectedly. A parent might die of a sudden heart attack; a brother or sister might be killed in an auto accident, or a friend might commit suicide. The very nature of these deaths often results in a prolonged and heightened sense of an ineptitude in dealing with reality causing these teenagers to become numb and develop a sense of existence in a dream world.

How Death Affects Teenagers

man-164962_640Sometimes teens become withdrawn, use drugs, develop a pattern of truancy and show a decline in their academics after losing a loved one. “Children who lose a parent are 5 times more likely to commit suicide, 9 times more likely to drop out of high school, 10 times more likely to use drugs, and 20 times more at risk for behavior disorders,” according to an article1.

A study2 that tracked more than 7 million people for up to 42 years found that people who lost a parent before they turned 18 were 50 percent more likely to die during the study’s course than people who made it to adulthood with both parents still alive. Therefore, it is important for teenagers to grieve appropriately and seek help when needed from adults.

Help Teenagers Grieve

Everyone grieves differently. Adolescents need appropriate time to grieve. Here are five ways to support teenagers in their time of need.

Permit Teens to Grieve and Model Healthy Grieving Behaviors

Reassure teenagers that each person grieves differently and encourage the teen to grieve in whichever way benefits him or her. Model healthy grieving behavior, because teens will model you. Do not minimize their loss.

Listen, Accept, Encourage and Observe

girl-690717_640Teens might be struggling to manage a roller coaster of emotions and thoughts after the death of a loved one. Remain empathic and nonjudgmental. Be there if they want to talk and discuss their feelings, try your best to answer their questions if they have any, and do not force them to talk about the loss if they are not comfortable.

Keep in mind that they may ask some tough questions that you do not have the answers to and being honest and saying “I don’t know” can be the correct answer to some of these tough questions. Keep an eye out for signs of distress or danger. If your teen exhibits signs of unhealthy coping behaviors, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, anger and aggression encourage him or her to seek professional help.

Help Your Teen Find Ways to Express Grief

Many teens prefer to do rather than to talk. Help find creative ways to express grief, such as creating a photo album to celebrate their memories with the deceased; journaling; or artistic expressions such as music, art or dance.

Give them the option of attending the funeral and/or burial and guide them through what they should expect. Create family rituals that can be done together, such as lighting a candle or planting a tree.

Maintain Consistency with Family Rules and Routines

girl-690614_640Death and grief reactions can cause a teen to feel out of control. Teens might test the boundaries and limits. However, it is important to maintain the established daily routine; this provides the teen with a sense of safety and security.

Connect Teens with Outside Support Groups

Teenagers might feel more comfortable talking with other teens in a group therapy setting, such as a grief support group, which can provide a sense of community and help them know that they are not alone. Lastly, teenagers can connect with a mental health therapist who can help them grieve and process the loss.

Processing Grief

Author Anthon St. Maarten3 captures what it means to process emotions, such as grief:

“Highly sensitive people are too often perceived as weaklings or damaged goods. To feel intensely is not a symptom of weakness, it is the trademark of the truly alive and compassionate. It is not the empath who is broken, it is society that has become dysfunctional and emotionally disabled. There is no shame in expressing your authentic feelings. Those who are at times described as being a ‘hot mess’ or having ‘too many issues’ are the very fabric of what keeps the dream alive for a more caring, humane world. Never be ashamed to let your tears shine a light in this world.”

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What has been your experience with chronic emotional pain as an adolescent? What tools have you found to help in your grief recovery?

About the Author:

Rachael Mattice is the Content Manager for Sovereign Health Group, an addiction, mental health and dual diagnosis treatment provider. Rachael is a creative and versatile journalist and digital marketing specialist with an extensive writing and editing background.

Her portfolio includes numerous quality articles on various topics published in print and digital formats at award-winning publications and websites. To learn more about Sovereign Health Group’s mental health treatment programs and read patient reviews, visit Follow Sovereign Health Group on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.


  1. The Need. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2015, from
  2. Mortality after Parental Death in Childhood: A Nationwide Cohort Study from Three Nordic Countries. (2014, July 1). Retrieved April 1, 2015, from
  3. Anthon St. Maarten. (2015, January 1). Retrieved April 27, 2015, from

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addiction. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 1st, 2015
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