Helping Tweens Cope With the Death of a Parent

Filed under: Development: Tweens

sad teen girl on beachThe deep grief of losing a beloved parent is difficult at any age, but it can be especially traumatic for tweens, whose personal identities are just beginning form, and who -- even if they deny it -- still desperately need their moms and dads.

When Natasha Richardson died suddenly, leaving behind her two boys, Micheál, 13 and Daniel, 12, the world watched and wept with her husband, Liam Neeson, as he was left to help his sons heal while also dealing with what we can only assume is his own suffering and sadness.

Losing a parent in such a traumatic way brings challenges that an expected death does not, says Glenda Rogers, a licensed marriage and family therapist at the Center for Contextual Change in Skokie, Ill. "With sudden death, the family does not have time to say goodbye, or to anticipate what their life will be like without that person, or to make meaning of the loss," says Rogers. "It is difficult to make sense of the loss, and often leaves the survivors feeling vulnerable."


Momlogic guest blogger Liesl Bradner wrote recently about how Richardson's tragic death after a skiing accident brought to mind the death of her own mother, who died suddenly when Bradner was the same age as Daniel Neeson.

"One of my therapists said that when a parent dies the child remains emotionally at the age they were at their parent's death. There are definitely times when I still feel like that lost 12 year old girl who still longs for her mother nearly 30 years later."

Rogers agrees that tweens, just on the precipice of adolescence, definitely struggle more than an older child might. "Tweens are a difficult age, due to the physical and chemical changes of puberty, and the movement away from their parents and toward their peer group," she explains. "Although they are becoming more independent, they still need their parents." Because of this, the child's loss may become a fundamental part of their identity as an adult.

Losing a same-sex parent, as Bradner did, can be especially hard on kids who are just beginning to explore their sexual identities. Tweens, says Rogers, are also starting to develop their gender-role, and the death of a same-sex parent makes that process "more challenging." The surviving parent can help by being aware of their child's sexual education and developing a plan to deal with it.

That said, loss is loss. Micheál and Daniel lost a parent to whom they were undoubtedly close. Grieving for their mother will be no less difficult.

My father died when I was 33, and the pain was so hard to handle that I can barely bring myself to consider what it must be like for a child. I was able to prepare a little bit, because my dad had a terminal illness. Nonetheless, his death continues to challenge me in ways I never expected, even five years later.

When my dad died, the best advice I got was from a counselor at the American Cancer Society. She told me that grief has a way of taking over, and people react in ways we can never anticipate. Her advice? Let people act as crazy as they need to, and forgive them for it.

Rogers agrees, and says that parents of children who are coping with grief should be prepared for their kids to act out. "Tweens may express their grief with mood swings, trouble at school, and anger and sadness," she says. "They may withdraw more from their family, and begin to engage in risk-taking behaviors." Kids this age are also able to express their emotions verbally, which is something that might be more difficult with a younger child. Family members should take advantage of that fact by seeking out a counselor.

There is no set time-table for grieving, and children grieve differently than adults. "Your child may not grieve how you thought they would, and that is OK," Roger says. "It is also normal for parents to feel overwhelmed by their own grief. Grieving parents need to take care of themselves, too, and should reach out for help."

The best advice that Rogers has is for everyone involved in the loss to be truthful and open. Encourage children to ask questions and give them the chance to talk about their loss. She also suggested created family rituals to honor the deceased parent, which can help everyone "make meaning of the loss."

Every year on my dad's birthday, my little family goes out for dinner. It isn't always someplace fancy, but we take a night off and celebrate. The first few years, it was hard to feel festive, but as time goes by we're able to laugh more and cry less. I hope that one day, Micheál and Daniel can do the same.

Did you lose a parent at a young age? How did you cope?

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.