What Does Complicated Grief Disorder Look Like in Teens?
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Grief can be felt after the loss of any loved one, no matter what their connection may be. A teen can feel the mental and emotional impact of losing a grandparent, a friend at school or even a pet. Unfortunately, the loss of immediate family members is quite common. Approximately 6 million children in the U.S. will experience the loss of a parent or sibling before they turn 18.

While everyone goes through grief at their own pace, and in their own way, it’s important to know when a teen’s grief requires further support. Complicated grief, sometimes referred to as prolonged grief, means that the grief period after a loss has gone on for longer than what’s considered to be typical. It’s actually a diagnosable mental health disorder that can have a significant impact on a teen’s psychological and emotional patterns. 

It’s important to know what complicated grief looks like in teens to make sure they get the support and treatment they need. We’ll talk about the signs of complicated grief disorder in teens, how complicated grief is different from typical grief and how complicated grief disorder can be treated.

The signs of complicated grief disorder to look for in teens

Grief looks different for everyone, especially across different cultures and religions. It’s a highly individual process experienced and expressed in different ways and for different lengths of time.  But grief is often accompanied with feelings of deep sadness, loneliness, anger and guilt. These feelings often fade gradually over time. It’s important to note that complicated grief can also be experienced by people who have not lost a loved one.

Complicated grief disorder, also known as persistent complex bereavement disorder, is a condition characterized by prolonged and intense grief that significantly impairs a person’s ability to function in daily life. It affects approximately 7% of bereaved people. 

Here are signs of complicated grief disorder to look out for in teens:

  • Severe and overwhelming sadness or anger
  • Self-blame or feeling guilty about the loss/relationship with the person who passed
  • Intense longing for the person who passed
  • Difficulty accepting the reality of the loss
  • Hyperfixation on reminders of the loss, or complete avoidance
  • Self-harm behaviors or suicidality

If you fear that your teen is experiencing a mental health crisis after the loss of a loved one, and they’re at risk to themselves or others, be sure to call emergency services. You can also call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. 

How to tell the difference between uncomplicated grief and complicated grief disorder

Since everyone grieves differently, you may see most negative behaviors and emotions in a teen after a loss as typical grief. However, complicated grief disorder in a teen goes beyond feeling sad for a while.

Teens may experience grief for many reasons beyond the death of a loved one. It can also come from big life changes, such as changing schools, seeing their parents be divorced, losing a pet or having a health issue. The negative thoughts and emotions from uncomplicated grief will likely improve over several weeks. The symptoms of complicated grief disorder can last months, or even years, potentially worsening with time. 

Complicated grief can interfere with a teen’s schoolwork, social life and motivation for the future. Here’s how typical grief can impact a teen’s quality of life as opposed to complicated grief disorder.


  • Typical grief — They may miss school for a couple of days and need a bit of time to be able to refocus on their schoolwork. 
  • Complicated grief disorder — They may avoid going to school for as long as possible, potentially skipping class. They’re unable to concentrate on schoolwork for weeks, don’t turn in assignments, and have low test scores due to lack of studying. 


  • Typical grief — A teen may want to be alone more than they usually do, or they may find comfort in being with others. It can take a bit of time for them to open up about the cause of grief.
  • Complicated grief — They may withdraw from their friends, or isolate themselves completely. They may either want to only talk about the cause of grief, or completely shut down emotionally or mentally when it’s brought up.

Planning for the future:

  • Typical grief — Once they accept the reality of the situation or event, a teen can understand that their feelings will get better with time. They know that they can still have a fulfilling life while keeping bittersweet memories of the person.
  • Complicated grief — The teen may be inconsolable and refuse to accept the reality of a future after the impact of the situation. They can struggle with their self-esteem and question how deserving they are of having a fulfilling life.

Lightfully Teen can help when you recognize signs of complicated grief disorder to look in a teen

A significant life event like losing a loved one or seeing parents separate can be difficult, but it gets easier with time. When it comes to complicated grief disorder, it can seem impossible for a teen to restore their quality of life and look forward to the future. Parents may seek mental health intervention if they notice their teen is experiencing prolonged distress even if they do not know the reason or have a diagnosis yet.

At Lightfully Teen, our programs consist of evidence-based, clearly defined, data-driven and whole-person-centered care that can help teens work through their complicated grief disorder symptoms.

Change is possible. When your teen is ready to treat their complicated grief disorder, reach out to our Admissions Concierge Team. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of themselves.

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