May 20, 2020

The Impact of COVID-19 for Grieving Teens


By Tracy Hart, LCMHC

For teens already coping with grief, this pandemic may intensify their experience.

With multiple disruptions in our normal lives due to the novel coronavirus, many families are struggling to adjust to numerous changes in daily routine and the social limitations required for everyone’s safety. In particular, the uncertainty of the timeline for this impact is a stressful aspect of the COVID-19 crisis.

Families with teens may be finding that young people are experiencing this situation in a unique way. Adolescence is a time of transition when the focus tends to shift to peer relationships, forming an individual identity, and learning new skills. Teens are now dealing with a rapid shift of pace, reduced access to peer interactions, and a lot more family togetherness than they may be comfortable with! 

For any teen who was already coping with grief emotions from the death or serious illness of a loved one, this ongoing crisis may be intensifying their existing experience of grief. It’s important for adults to know that losses and changes that may seem minor (such as the disruption of social routines and other activities) can actually have a significant emotional and social impact for teens.

Families may find it helpful to understand the concept of “ambiguous loss,” which generally refers to an ongoing, unresolved loss featuring a lack of opportunity for closure. With no specific timeline for returning to normal activities, it’s not unusual for teens to feel that the world as they knew it has come to an end.

In particular, teens who lost the opportunity for conventional recognition of important landmark events — such as high school graduation — may be feeling a mix of sadness, anger, or other common grief emotions. The abrupt interruption of other activities that help teens feel a sense of belonging and identity, such as team sports or extracurricular clubs, may also contribute to a sense of unresolved loss that can be difficult for teens to explain.

Families can help to ease this sense of ambiguous loss with the following tips:

Encourage honest dialogue about what’s happening. Let your teen know that you recognize the impact of the coronavirus on their daily life and that you will take seriously any emotions that your teen may want to process with you.

Help teens connect with their peers. Adults can help facilitate ways to maintain important social connections. For some teens, social media or multiplayer video games can play this role, in addition to other options like video chats or other virtual get-togethers.

Maintain household expectations, but offer compassion. Teens, younger kids, and adults may all be under stress right now. Make it clear that basic house rules have not changed, but offer leeway and a sympathetic ear when your teen seems to be having a harder time than usual.

Consult with a Kids Path Counselor

The Kids Path program provides individual grief counseling for children and teens through age 18. If your teen or child has experienced the death or serious illness of a loved one, our licensed counselors are available to consult with parents or caregivers about the best approach to support at this time. Call 336-544-5437 and ask to speak with any counselor.