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Fifteen-Year-Old Loses a Parent

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: My husband died suddenly in December. My youngest son is 15 years old finishing his freshman year. It has been a tough semester for him and for me. I was very concerned about my son and still am, but he does seem to be doing better, emotionally and grade-wise. How important is it to have a child who has lost a parent to go to counseling groups? He can't drive and I work, so it's really hard to get him to these classes. Is there anything I should be looking for that would indicate he is having problems? Right now he seems really good and I'd have to push him into something if he's not open to it. He's easy to talk to, and I think would tell me if he's having problems.

A: First, may I express my sadness at your losing your husband and your son losing his dad. My mother, who was the cornerstone of our family, died suddenly when I was 20 and my sister was 12. I understand the profound loss of a loved parent when a child is young. I am an advocate of grief support groups for kids in your son’s shoes. There are so few of them in existence and such a desperate need for them. They are probably most effective when incorporated into the school day (thus preventing any out-of-school disruption) and supported by the school’s counseling staff and teaching core. I know a few schools here in Massachusetts who have successfully worked bereavement groups into their school day.

If you and your son have the open, communicative relationship you describe, I certainly would not compel him to attend counseling groups. However, if you could find a support group designed for kids who have lost family members, I would make the sacrifices necessary to see that he could attend. Emphasize to him that these groups are not therapy sessions where kids see a shrink. Rather they are peer support groups facilitated by a professional.

Moving through the continuing grief that he (and you) will suffer knows no pat formula. Don’t be surprised if his current coping skills break down unexpectedly. Pretending that nothing’s wrong by never talking about one’s feelings is not healthy. At his age he may feel it’s his responsibility to act like the man of the family, showing you no behaviors that would trouble you. I would be concerned if he never shares any talk of his father with anyone. As long as you feel that he has outlets, through family members and friends, to express his feelings regarding his dad’s death and it’s aftermath, then you can take comfort.

There are many ways of keeping loved ones’ memories alive; you two need to consider ways to keep his dad remembered and honored. Creating rituals and occasions that accomplish this is a priority. Please write me any time you think I could be of help.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.


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