Counselling teens can be difficult, messy, funny, and rewarding on so many levels. When a child is stuck in the throes of a protracted grief, it adds a new challenging dimension. I have been counselling a boy who lost his Mum to cancer a few years ago. He was withdrawn, sad and uncommunicative. He sat opposite me with his big hurting eyes, staring at me deeply and intently for long periods of time saying nothing. It was a challenge for me, as my strategic philosophical counselling style is person – centred and solution focused. The client always steers the ship. I want them to fill the shared supportive space with their narrative not verbose mouthy me. Not this time ! This time I did a lot of talking, suggested lots of things we could do together,-nope ,asking a squillion questions to which I often got one word answers. Most beginning with N and ending in 0 . How could I reach this precious despondent boy ? Could I find even a chink in his steely defensive armour ? He looked at me disapprovingly, and said, he “felt uncomfortable being with me”, yet agreed to come back each week, and…well… stare at me.
Shutting down in grief to protect ourselves
Grief in adolescents and children can take on a somewhat different kaleidoscope to adult grieving.They have a small experiential frame of reference when it comes to trauma and obstacles in their world, so a traumatic life experience speaks to their future potential life incidences with fear and vulnerability grafitied all over it . Their survival instinct kicks in and they may well ” batten down the hatches “.
As firstname.lastname@example.org writes
“Grieving does not feel natural because it may be difficult to control the emotions, thoughts, or physical feelings associated with a death. The sense of being out of control that is often a part of grief may overwhelm or frighten some teens. Grieving is normal and healthy, yet may be an experience teens resist and reject. It also means adolescents experience incredibly intense emotions. Helping teens accept the reality that they are grievers allows them to do their grief work and to progress in their grief journey”.
As Maggie Dent also writes … this inability to manage moods and a resistance to ask for help creates a cluster of unique challenges that can make grieving especially difficult for teens”.
Grieving is slow and takes energy
So here we were with , this droopy but staunch sign between us saying “Do not Disturb” and me doing a helluva lot of talking about grief theory,stages, and how sad he must be, blah blah… and getting nowhere.
Then one week out of the blue , he looked up at me with that dark stare and said very slowly ” I think I am stuck in the depressive phase “.
I then calmly and gently squeezed some workable light from this reticent offering : His freshly minted belief that if we don’t get close to those we love, then it won’t hurt if they die too . And by not thinking about his Mum he could ward off the pain. She was as he said, “just a body”- Bingo, there it was that resist and reject.
In the mind of a teen who has had a life defining moment, a heart wrenching painful loss, way before his developing brain could handle it, how could I argue with that ?
Well I did , slowly, compassionately, over weeks, we talked of the consequences of NOT thinking of his wonderful kind loving Mum. That we can get stuck in grief and it can do us long term harm. Careful to avoid talking about any memories with me – he did not want to go there, we talked about finding space maybe once a week to give himself permission to think about Mum alone in his room. He looked at me with open-minded skepticism but reluctantly said he’d give it a ” try”.
The next week, there it was, that hollow stare. “
“Yes” , he said, ” he’d tried it, it was Ok” . Silence.
I said, not very confidently , ” well, um,keep it up mate , a little longer, you never know . I’m proud of you for trying”.
The following week, this new boy entered my room, he chatted, laughed, and smiled for an hour as he regaled stories of his memories of holidays with Mum. I sat and listened and smiled and laughed ,and did not say one verbose .mouthy word…..
This story post is an amalgamation of therapist’s experiences with grieving teenagers.
Do you have a grieving teen ? Need help ? First consultation is free !