Ep 213: Guiding Teens Through Grief

Episode Summary

Dr. Elena Lister, psychologist and author of Giving Hope, speaks about why it’s so essential to discuss death with our kids. Elena explains how to have age-appropriate talks when a loved one passes, and how to help grieving teens who are struggling to open up.


Full Show Notes

When a loved one is seriously ill or passes unexpectedly, there’s no easy way to tell our kids. While we want them to know the truth and feel supported through any grief they might have, we don’t want to freak them out or say the wrong thing. This is particularly true when it comes to teenagers, who typically don’t want to talk to parents about anything–especially intense emotions.

But talking about death and loss can be immensely valuable for teens, especially after a tragedy. Opening up a conversation about grief reminds teens that their home is a safe space for difficult feelings. For teens who feel like they’re mourning on their own, having a parent to turn to can make all the difference. 

Today we’re talking to Dr. Elena Lister, co-author of Giving Hope: Conversations with Children About Illness, Death, and Loss. Elena is a psychology professor and practicing psychologist. In her work, she specializes in treating people who are struggling with grief. She also travels to schools to help kids deal with the loss of teachers, school staff or other members of their community.

In our interview, Elena and I are covering why conversations about death are so essential, and what we can say to support teens who are working through the loss of a loved one. Plus, how you can help teens who don’t want to open up about their grief.

Discussing Death With Kids

Although it can be one of the most difficult topics for anyone to talk about, discussing death can also be incredibly important. Death is an inevitable part of life, explains Elena, and kids are often already aware of it before we ever bring it up. Pixar movies touch on themes of grief and loss, and school curriculums tackle famous figures who’ve passed. Without a conversation about death at home, kids can sometimes feel like they’re grappling with the concept alone.

When we allow kids to feel comfortable talking about death, we help them claim ownership over their emotions, says Elena. These talks remind teens that they’re capable of managing difficult things in both the present and the future–tough emotions included, Elena says. If we don’t offer them this refuge, teens can bring the trauma of these losses into adulthood, where they may have even more trouble working through them.

Elena explains that it can sometimes be tempting to lie to kids when the reality of death arises–like telling kids that the family dog went off to live on a farm when the truth is that he’s passed. But lying can undermine the bond of trust between you and your teen, Elena says, leading kids to be suspicious of anything else you might say for years to come. Plus, teens can often sense when you aren’t telling the truth, and might feel upset if they know you’re hiding something, she explains.

Whether you have to break the news of a loved one’s passing or just want to help kids understand the concept of death, these conversations aren’t easy. Elena is helping us understand what we can say to help teens feel supported, and what terms or topics to avoid.

Finding the Right Moment To Talk

If you want to have a conversation about death with teens, Elena recommends weaving this talk into everyday life. It might not seem intuitive, but bringing these heavy topics into a more casual environment can make them easier to discuss. She suggests leaving time for kids to ask questions after the talk, and then returning to daily activities. It can also be comforting to spend some time together doing something simple after, like watching a movie.

What’s the best time of day for the conversation? Elena advises us not to break the news of a loved one’s passing before bedtime, she says, as humans are predisposed to feel lonely at night. If possible, she recommends we  avoid telling kids before they go off to school, unless it’s someone in their immediate circle. Elena explains that kids often perceive a shift in energy among parents and peers when someone passes, and this might cause confusion if the circumstances are clearly communicated.

Elena suggests that parents choose a moment when they’re free to spend some time with kids afterwards–if the situation allows. If you can sit with teens without distractions, they’ll know you’re there to comfort them and guide them through any grief they might have. In our interview, Elena and I talk about how important it is to put down our phones and other electronics during this time–even though it can be tempting to scroll through emails to deflect tension.

Sometimes, however, teens don’t want to start up a conversation at all. This can lead parents to wonder if teens are struggling to communicate their grief, or simply talking about their feelings with someone else. Elena and I are talking about how you can interpret teens’ closed-off behavior and help them accept any feelings they might be wrestling with.

Guiding Teens Through Grief

We all react differently to grief, Elena eplains. If teens aren’t crying or showing outward signs of sadness, it doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling. Some kids even feel guilty about not crying, and might need a gentle reminder that any reaction they’re having is ok, says Elena. When kids seem to be avoiding emotion altogether, Elena suggests trying to find a non-verbal way they can express their grief. We share more specific ways to do this in the episode.

Teens are usually experiencing the natural process of finding their independence, and may not want to talk to parents about what they’re feeling. If they aren’t sharing their grief with you, Elena recommends ensuring that they’re talking to someone else. Whether that person is a friend, a teacher, a counselor or a different family member, having someone else to open up to can be an essential part of processing the death of a loved one.

Sometimes teens need the help of a professional, like a therapist or grief counselor. But how do we know when it’s time to call for this resource? Elena says that if teens aren’t able to reacclimate regular life in four to six weeks, it might be wise to set up a professional appointment. If they aren’t eating or sleeping, refuse to come out of their room or suddenly begin acting up, they might need additional help beyond what parents can give.

In the Episode…

There’s so much to learn from Elena in this episode. On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:

  • What to do if a loved one dies while kids are away
  • How to speak to kids about suicide
  • Why celebrities’ deaths can trigger kids’ own trauma
  • Why every kid should have a goldfish

If you enjoyed this week’s episodes, you can find more from Elena at elenalistermd.com, or on Twitter @Elenalistermd1. Thanks for listening, and don’t forget to share and subscribe! We’ll see you next week.