After a sibling or parent death: how pre-teens and teenagers might feel and react over time
Your child will probably feel grief, which might be more intense or overwhelming at times. These times might include their parent’s or sibling’s birthday or death anniversary, special occasions, and transitions like moving house or changing schools.
At different times after their parent or sibling dies, pre-teens and teenagers might also feel confused, sad, angry, afraid, regretful, guilty, worried or lonely.
Over time you might see changes in behaviour too, like:
- withdrawing from others
- taking risks
- doing worse at school
- refusing to go to school
- having more conflict with you.
And there can be effects on physical and mental health. For example, your child might have:
- physical pain like headaches and stomach aches
- changes in appetite
- signs of anxiety or depression
- sleep problems.
Some pre-teens and teenagers react by taking on their parent’s or sibling’s responsibilities or doing other things their parent or sibling used to do.
Some pre-teens and teenagers might seem more strongly affected than others. And some might seem not to be affected at all.
Pre-teens and teenagers need support in the early weeks after their parent or sibling dies. This includes support to understand the death and help to get through the funeral.
Talking with pre-teens and teenagers about the death in the months and years afterwards
It’s good to talk with your child about how they’re feeling over time. It’s especially important to talk at times like their parent’s or sibling’s birthday or death anniversary and the days leading up to these. You can encourage your child to talk to trusted friends and family too.
Talking with your child about their parent or sibling over time can help them:
- feel a sense of comfort and security when intense grief strikes
- understand their changing feelings and reactions
- come to terms with the loss
- feel a continuing connection with their parent or sibling
- feel less alone in their grief
- recall comforting and positive memories of their parent or sibling.
These tips might help:
- Encourage your child to talk about their parent or sibling when they want to.
- If your child wants to talk, stop what you’re doing and give them your full attention.
- Comfort your child and let them know their feelings are natural. For example, ‘I can see you’re feeling sad – so am I. We miss them so much’.
- Tell your child that you love them and that you’ll look after them.
Over the months and years, your child will probably ask you questions about the death of their parent or sibling. This is part of their grieving. Do your best to answer your child’s questions. And if you don’t know an answer, tell your child you’ll find out more and come back to them.
Violent or traumatic deaths – for example, a car accident or suicide – can deeply affect children and families. If this happens in your family, seek professional help for your child and yourself. Start by talking to your GP or calling Griefline on 1300 845 745.
Long-term support for pre-teens and teenagers after a sibling or parent death: tips
Your child will need support for a long time, and their support needs will probably change over time. These ideas might help:
- Stay connected with your child. This helps your child feel safe and secure. It also means you’ll be more likely to pick up on any problems that your child might be having.
- Always reassure and comfort your child. For example, sit with them, hug them, or do whatever feels comfortable.
- Read books about grief with your child and talk about them. You could try Mick Harte was here by Barbara Park.
- Encourage your child to spend time with friends or trusted adults away from the family home. This can give your child a break from home, where there might be many reminders of their parent or sibling. It can also help them reconnect with regular life.
- Encourage your child to connect with other people in similar situations. For example, they could chat with others at headspace or attend a grieving camp like Feel The Magic.
- Help your child maintain a healthy lifestyle. If your child is physically well, it can be good for their emotional and mental health.
Grief rituals for pre-teens and teenagers after a sibling or parent death
Grief rituals are activities your child can do to express their grief and honour their parent or sibling. These activities might help your child in the months and years after the death.
Which rituals to do and when to do them is up to your child. For example, your child might want to do something special on their parent’s or sibling’s birthday or death anniversary. Rituals can also help when grief is intense or overwhelming.
It’s also up to your child whether to do rituals alone or with others.
Your child might want to try various rituals to see which ones feel meaningful to them. Here are ideas:
- Visit the parent’s or sibling’s grave or place where the ashes have been laid to rest.
- Share stories about the parent’s or sibling’s life with trusted family and friends.
- Create a memory box with mementos. Look through the box at any time.
- Visit places or do things that have a special connection to the parent or sibling. For example, visit the parent’s or sibling’s favourite museum or cook their favourite meal.
- Make art in honour of the parent or sibling, like a drawing or a poem.
- Continue or create family rituals. For example, you could choose a secret signal to give each other whenever you’re thinking of the person who died.
Your child might also like to practise grief rituals from their own culture or religion. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people practise grief as a community through a process called Sorry Business. And in some religions, people might pray for the person who died on the person’s death anniversary and the days leading up to it.
You might be focused on your child’s wellbeing, but you’re grieving too. It’s important to take time to cope with your own grief. If you look after yourself, you’ll be in better shape to support your child. You can get support by seeing your GP or calling Griefline on 1300 845 745.
Changes to family life after the death: helping pre-teens and teenagers cope
The death of a parent or sibling can lead to big changes in your family’s life. For example, there might be changes in family income and caring roles, plus disruptions to routines. Some extended family and friends might become more important in your family life and others less so.
This is all happening at the same time as your child is going through the changes of teenage development.
All these changes can cause stress, uncertainty and confusion for your child. They might even lead to more conflict at home.
These tips can help you and your child cope:
- Talk with your child. Explain what’s happening and how a change might affect your child. Ask your child how they feel about it.
- Involve your child in big decisions, especially ones that directly affect them, like moving house. This helps your child feel valued and gives them a sense of control.
- Stick to familiar routines as much as you can. You can also ask others to help you. For example, family and friends could bring you meals to help you stick to the usual dinner time.
- Along with familiar routines, it’s OK to create new routines when you need to. These can help everyone in the family adapt to change while keeping some consistency.
After a parent or sibling’s death, your family might be eligible for financial support from Services Australia. And if a parent died, your family might also be entitled to their superannuation fund balance, along with any additional death benefits. Contact the superannuation fund to check.
Professional support for grieving pre-teens and teenagers after a sibling or parent death
It’s a good idea to get professional support for your child after the death of a parent or sibling, especially if you’re concerned about your child’s behaviour or wellbeing.
Your GP is a good place to start. They can guide you to the most appropriate services for your child – for example, bereavement counselling services. They can also refer your child to a mental health professional like a psychologist or social worker.
Here are more ways to get support for your child:
- Call Griefline on 1300 845 745.
- Encourage your child to speak to their school counsellor.
- Encourage your child to call Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 or use the Kids Helpline email counselling service or Kids Helpline webchat counselling service.
- Contact local mental health services for teenagers.
- If the person died by suicide, call StandBy Support After Suicide on 1300 727 247 or go to StandBy Support After Suicide – Find support.
You and your child will have good days and bad days. Try to show compassion for yourself and encourage self-compassion in your child while your family finds its own ways of coping with this very challenging experience.