Loss and Anger in a Teen

Student Story: Amber

Loss is a disappointing reality for anyone. But when adolescents experience unmet expectations or unfulfilled dreams, they typically respond with anger. This weekend on Parenting Today’s Teens, Mark Gregston offers helpful advice for dealing with loss and anger in teens.

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Something’s Missing

My father was a good dad.  He provided for the family, taught me valuable life lessons, and was strict in his discipline.  But like all parents, my dad wasn’t perfect.  While I respected my father, I didn’t have a great relationship with him.  It was a loss that I carried for a long time.  I had a void that craved my father’s love and friendship.

When there are emotional gaps in our lives, we have a need to fill them in.  In my case, I tried to ease my sense of loss by throwing myself into swimming competitively.  There I found father figure relationships with my coaches, camaraderie with teammates, and a sense of worth when I won swim meets.  It was my way of easing my pain and finding release.

I am convinced that much of the good—and most of the bad—behavior in teens is fueled by a similar sense of loss.  Young people attempt to replace what they lost, find something they need, or attain something they hope for.  It’s not wrong to want to fill the emptiness in our lives—but for teens unequipped to handle the feelings of loss, it can result in destructive behaviors.  Over the years with counseling kids at Heartlight, I found each one had the same desire:  I want to be whole.  I want to be complete.  But I don’t know how!  I can’t deal with this loss in my life!

When it seems like our teens are experiencing a sense of loss, it’s not enough to address inappropriate behavior.  We have to reach for their heart.

Something I Lost

Grief is a powerful emotion.  It can leave us reeling and breathless.  Adults have a tough enough time dealing with grief.  But for a teenager, grief can be overwhelming.

I have a friend who was devastated by the sudden loss of her father.  Cheryl was only in middle school at the time, and processing her grief was not easy.  Missing the love of a father, she turned to boyfriends to find male comfort and affirmation.  Of course, even as a teenager, Cheryl knew that boys could never replace the need for a dad in her life.  But it was an overwhelming need to find something that she had lost—to replace what was missing.

If you notice a drastic change in your son’s or daughter’s behavior and moods, chances are they’re dealing with a loss they need to fill.  They’re searching for a remedy, even if it’s a part-time relief.  This is where graceful communication and a listening ear come into play.  Getting our teens to talk about what is troubling their hearts is a step in the right direction.  Sometimes all it takes is a person listening to the sorrows in their lives to help kids filter and express their feelings in a positive way.

The grief your son or daughter is exhibiting may be the result of a major loss like death.  But often teens mourn for small losses as well, like a favorite shirt thrown away, or a friendship that has fallen by the wayside.  Don’t minimize the real sense of loss your teen is feeling.  Instead, come alongside your child to help them talk it out, release their grief, and work through the pain in healthy ways.

Something I Need

Those empty, achy parts in a teen’s life can also be caused by something they need and are not getting.  And in the consuming desire to fill their lives and find relief, a young adult can make some very bad choices.

A young girl who wants to feel valued, desired and needed can begin to use sex as a means to find what she desperately desires.  It’s the same motivation that drives young men to go all out to find self-worth out on the field or court.  Others might lose themselves in video game reality, where meaning and value is found in racking up points and skill in a digital world.

Is the bad behavior you see in your teen the result of a need that is not being met in their lives?  Are they looking to find completeness in things that may cause more harm than good?  As parents, sometimes we have to look past the conduct of our kids to focus on what is motivating them.  If a young woman is hungry for a boy’s attention, it’s likely she needs male role models who esteem her and love her.  When a teenage boy smokes pot, he’s probably looking for a way to feel normal.  Struggling with social fears, educational disabilities, or feelings of loneliness, he turns to drugs to fill the void.  He’s looking for inclusion in a community that accepts him.

Pay attention to what your child needs.  Many of the bad behaviors can be prevented or curtailed by either supplying what your teen is lacking or helping them realize their goals.  But with that encouragement comes a caution.  Don’t rely solely on yourself to fill every void in our child’s life.  It’s just not possible!  Only the Lord can satisfy the deepest desires of the heart.  Even if we meet all the emotional and physical needs of our children, they still won’t be complete and whole without the presence of God in their lives.  Remind your kids that true and complete fulfillment can only be found in God.

Fill the Cracks with Grace

It’s natural to distance ourselves from our kids when they act out, disrespect us, call us names, and make wrong choices.  But in those times, we cannot walk away.  We have to draw closer, and prod their heart.  For a task like that, we parents need grace—and a lot of it!  Grace gives us the ability to look past behavior and see a hurting child.  It doesn’t mean we excuse what they’ve done or ignore the consequences.  Instead it’s loving our kids, even when they mess up big, and looking for opportunities to speak into their lives.

What is missing in your teen’s life?  Find out and let them know you love them enough to help them find it.

Coming Up – Turbulence Ahead: parenting teens through the bumpy years- seminar on Saturday, August 25th. Join us at Christ Community Church from 9 AM-3PM. Contact the church at 706.565.7240 or visit www.ccclive.org.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas.  For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website.  It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent.  Go to www.heartlightministries.org.  Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at www.markgregston.com.  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.  Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.

Grieving Loss

By definition, loss is difficult.  For a teenager going through a key transition in his life, it can be especially difficult to navigate loss of any kind.

At Heartlight, a residential counseling center, we have about sixty kids living with us.  These teens come to us because of life issues they are struggling to solve.  Many of them find their way to Heartlight because they are acting out through inappropriate and unhealthy behavior.  Grief is one of the primary causes of that behavior.

We all deal with grief.  Whether you grieve losing your family pet, a job loss, or a move to a new town, sorrow and heartache are normal responses to the human experience.  In all likelihood, your teen has experienced these low moments in some form or fashion.  Today’s kids are dealing with normal expressions of grief that come after losing a parent or grandparent.  But there are other losses as well:  loss of a dream, death of a friend, or a fractured love relationship.

The teen years are filled with transitional moments.  First and foremost is your teen’s evolution from childhood to adulthood.  This season presents dramatic transformations.  Along with physical changes, your teen is also experiencing a change in how he thinks.  He is no longer thinking in concrete terms alone.  He is beginning to think abstractly.  This often makes a person grieve over childhood loss a second time, because he understands it in a different way than he did when it initially happened.  Even if you thought that your teen had grieved over a loss in his childhood, it may surface again as he begins to reorder his life with this new abstract thinking skill.

Your teen will mourn differently than you do.  Even if you lose the same thing (such as a relative), your teen will face unique challenges in processing that loss.  If someone has died, they are facing the end of life at the beginning of their own life.  It’s not easy.  Kids have a hard time realizing that life is not a static experience.  It’s always shifting.  So when they have major life changes that cause grief, they may end up having panic attacks or self-medicating.  A counselor or other trained professional can be helpful in these moments.

However, before we rush to using a counselor, we need to allow kids to have time to express their grief.  Even if they say that things are good, their behavior will show us how they are feeling.  Some people grieve all at once, but others can grieve over ten years or longer.

A statement made by my friend who worked with me at Kanakuk Kamp in the ‘80s had a great way of summarizing the struggle.  He said, “The moods of a lifetime are often set in the all-but-forgotten events of childhood.”

If your teen holds onto his grief instead of processing it and moving past it, that grief may become a “mood of a lifetime.”  Your teen is trying to navigate his transition to adulthood, and he needs your help!  If your teen is outgoing, he may be overly demonstrative in his emotions.  You can help him temper his emotions.  If your teen is more inclined toward grieving in silence, what he really needs is a silent friend to simply endure the vigil with him.

Either way, your teen will use the relationship that you established before the loss to determine how much he will rely on you while he is grieving.  Build your relationship with your teen now so he is willing to come to you when it becomes a problem.  Be intentional about listening.  Appoint deliberate time when you shut off your phone and focus on your child.  Help your teen identify feelings and express them.  That doesn’t mean you will know what your child is feeling, but you can help him figure out what he is feeling, and then put words to it.  Help him understand that he might not get over the grief, but the grief doesn’t have to control him.

It’s important not to ignore the sorrow, but don’t make a big deal about it either.  Be attentive to your child and notice those things that will show you what he’s really experiencing. Even when it seems like something should be over and done with, there’s a reason that it’s surfacing again.  When those times come, it’s important to think about why it’s coming up again.  Maybe your teen didn’t have a chance to properly grieve the first time, or maybe another cause of grief is compounding his earlier loss.

Joey O’Connor has a unique perspective on grief.  He is the author of Teens and Grief, and his grandfather started a series of mortuaries in Los Angeles in 1898 which his family continues to run.  Joey’s definition of grief is helpful:  Grief is a series of emotions that come from a loss or a change in a pattern of behavior.  During this weekend’s broadcast of Parenting Today’s Teens, Joey will share more ways to help your teen process grief.

Grief is a season, not a lifestyle.  The only reason we grieve is that we value what we lost.  I hope your teen never forgets his loss, but let’s make sure it doesn’t control him.



Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas.  For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website.  It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent.  Go to www.heartlightministries.org.  Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at www.markgregston.com.  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.  Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.