How Teens Deal With Grief

Mike Riera answers parenting
The Saturday Early Show's family and adolescence counselor, Mike Riera, provides advice to parents who e-mailed "Ask Mike" about their problems with their children.

This time, he shares exclusive advice for answering a parenting question about how to understand teens' grieving process.

    Dear Mike:

    My 16-year-old son will refuse to talk to me for days, even a week or more, following an argument. His father died two years ago, so there are just the two of us. I know he needs to brood and deserves his solitude; these bouts appear to be punishment. I worry about his ability to hold a grudge for a long time. He sometimes refuses to eat with me and, as far as chores go, all pretense of helpfulness is gone. Help me to understand this behavior.

Mike's advice:

Your son is still dealing with grief over losing his dad. It's a tough time for him as, developmentally, 16 is a time when kids begin to pull away from their parents as they seek out more independence. But in his case he is scared to pull away from you and losing you, yet he is driven to do so. This is why he stops talking to you, refuses to eat with you, stops helping out around the house, and does not leave. He wants to be with you (part of the grief process) and wants to be independent (part of normal adolescent development). He's caught between the proverbial rock and hard place.

The ideal is to get him into some good counseling, which is easier said than done with most 16-year-old boys. Still, though, you need to bring up the idea with him. Give him space to refuse but make the offer, and continue to do so every few months or so.

You need to respect his space and not give up on staying connected to him, even when he isn't speaking with you. Write him notes, not lengthy treaties, just short notes. One single dad I knew in similar circumstances created a word processing document for him and his daughter: Dad and Sarah. The agreement they had, and stuck with, was that whatever they wrote to each other about, they would not talk about with each other. It worked.

If you can, reach out to an adult male in his life that he respects — a coach, uncle, neighbor or teacher. At 16, kids often will confide in a non-parental adult. Plus he needs all the male role models he can find right now.

Finally, hang in there. This is not a quick fix, but with time the relationship will get stronger and stronger, and more and more respectful. Later in life he will deeply appreciate what you are doing now.