Breakups, Divorce, and Death: Adolescent Grief and Loss Treatment for Teens

Adolescent Grief and Loss | Parent Treatment Advocates

Adolescence is an already challenging time. The amount of stress from psychological, emotional, and physical changes can be overwhelming for some teens. Add to this breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, parents divorcing, or the loss of a close friend to death and adolescence becomes that much more challenging.


When a teenager experiences a breakup, it can feel like their life is over. Although parents and caregivers might quickly judge teens as being overly dramatic, the breakup to them can lead to depression, anxiety, and deep feelings of loss. A serious breakup can affect their level of functioning and even have an influence on their sense of self. Adolescence is a time when teens are discovering more and more about who they are in order to grow into mature, well functioning adults. With an already fluctuating sense of identity, a break up can feel shattering.


The same is true when a teen’s life changes because of a divorce. It’s important for all children, including adolescents, to have structure. When the foundation of a family is threatened, the psychological and emotional well being of a teen can also be threatened. Divorce can lead to intense emotions of adolescent grief and loss, depression, sadness, anger, and resentment.

Death and Suicide

Teen suicide is the third leading cause of death of adolescents. When a teen loses a close friend, the feelings of grieving can impair functioning and well being. The National Institute of Mental Health indicates that there are as many as 25 attempts of suicide to every one that is actually committed. Male teens are four more times likely to die from suicide, whereas female adolescents are more likely to make suicide attempts. Although there are many reasons that might cause a suicide attempt, the most common is depression.

When addressing the concerns of adolescents, many people who have had any experience with grief counseling likely have heard of the psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler Ross. She developed five distinct stages to the grieving process based on her long-time work with her own clients. These stages form the acronym DABDA for easy recollection in their order. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

However, this article will explore another model to the stages of grieving, developed by psychologist J.W. Worden. He theorized that there are four tasks to grieving:

  1. Accept the reality of the loss – The task for a teen at this stage is to come to terms with the fact that there has been a loss. After moving through shock, denial, and disbelief, the first stage of grieving, according to Worden is to find acceptance that the loss is a reality in one’s life.
  2. Work through the pain of grief – Once an adolescent can accept the fact that there’s no reversing what has happened, there are some accompanying emotions that will be difficult to face. However, this is the very undertaking that an individual must face. Worden suggests that there is natural process for working through these difficult emotions. Although it is challenging, basic self-care is essential during this stage. It is also highly recommended that the support of a mental health professional be included during this, if not all, of these stages.
  3. Adjust to life without the deceased (or relationship) – Eventually, a teen will move on with his or her life. An adolescent might feel guilty about moving forward and pursuing life activities without the deceased, parents, or boyfriend/girlfriend. This stage might involve learning new skills in order to carry on with life. However, this stage is also a time for development, growth, and independence.
  4. Maintain a connection to the deceased (or relationship) while moving on with life – This stage is a bit like finding a normal life again. Some teens might call it, a “new normal”. It’s not the same as it was before the loss, but now that the process of grieving is coming to an end life is finding balance again.

The process of grieving is not linear. Whether working with the stages developed by Kubler Ross or Worden, knowing them can serve as a map of the challenging road that grieving presents.

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