Supporting Teens Through Loss

As human beings, loss is something that we all must face from time to time. When we hear the word “loss” our first thought is generally around the loss of a person or a pet  – someone near and dear to us. But loss means so much more, and our pandemic experiences have taught us that the definition of loss is far broader than we might have ever imagined. Think about what this means for teens. They are in a critical window for neurological and social development while experiencing loss on a scale they could not have foreseen, and need the tools to cope and process appropriately. So how do we help them? 

First, we have to acknowledge the disappointments. Loss doesn’t solely pertain to the people in our lives.  We can lose things, events, anticipated moments in time, and triumphs -all of which have profound effects on our psyches. Teens have lost graduations, proms, concerts, championship games, social circles, semesters of college – things that may have been planned or dreamed about weeks, months, or even years in advance.

Young people also need to know that it’s okay to express their feelings – and it’s important for adults and peers to validate them. Parents, teachers, caregivers, and friends can encourage the expression of feelings and validate that a youth is feeling sad, angry, anxious, or scared. For example, McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate, suggests saying something like, “A lot of people feel scared and anxious right now – it makes sense that you are feeling that way.”

Another helpful strategy is to communicate why the emotions make sense. The path through loss and grief isn’t necessarily linear, and understanding a person’s behavior in the context of their history and biology can be helpful. For example, a teen may seem like they’re overreacting to a mild illness, something that eventually turns out to be a minor cold. However, when examined through the correct context (global pandemic, the loss of a close family member from COVID-19) the heightened emotions make sense.

Also, try to practice radical genuineness. Be intentional. One of six levels of validation developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan, radical genuineness is when you can understand the emotion someone is feeling on a very deep level. Maybe you have had a similar experience. Radical genuineness is sharing that experience as an equal. In short – be authentic. Adolescents are very good at spotting “fakes” and have little tolerance for it (Greco & Hayes, 2008). Authenticity and mindfulness go hand-in-hand, and practicing one can support the other.

Finally, get creative! There are a lot of great ideas out there to help teens cope with loss during COVID-19, but here are just a few:

  • Help them to connect with classmates, teammates, or others for a virtual celebration
  • Expand their experiences by finding a way to be of service to others (Inner Strength currently has teens volunteering to beta-test our mobile application, for example)
  • Let them know that it’s okay to lean on parents, teachers, friends, and coaches. This is a difficult time for all of us, but there are brighter days ahead.

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