Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Adolescent Experiences with Death: Letting Go of Immortality

Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Adolescent Experiences with Death: Letting Go of Immortality

Article excerpt

Adolescents increasingly are exposed to death, and the quality of their grief differs from that of adults or children. This article highlights adolescent experiences with death within the context of normative developmental tasks and a consideration of ethnic and gender variations.


Risk-taking behavior among adolescents has been the subject of considerable theory and research during the past decade (Arnett & Balle-Jensen, 1993; Gibbons & Gerrard, 1995; Jessor, 1991). The counterpoint to this stream of exploration has been the efforts of other investigators to identify the factors that promote adolescent resilience to developing serious problems and engaging in excessively risky behaviors (Debold, Brown, Weseen, & Brookins, 1999; Masten, 2001; Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2000). In light of the tension between death-defying activities, fearless notions of immortality, and unhealthy patterns of behavior on the one hand, and an increasing awareness of death, a developing sense of rationality, and the unfolding of life's possibilities on the other hand, our chief aim in this article is to establish the context in which adolescents begin to grapple with how to construct meaning in their experiences with death as they come to realize their personal mortality. The first section of our discussion reviews the major developmental tasks and challenges of the adolescent years. Second, we highlight how these changes are reflected in adolescents' understandings of death as well as how that may differ from the ideas of younger children and adults. Next, the nature of actual adolescent encounters with death are described. Following this analysis, we apply parallel lenses to look at adolescent grief, including similarities and differences with childhood and adulthood. Finally, the potential implications of this knowledge for intervention and clinical practice with adolescents are suggested.


Although there is no universally accepted definition of adolescence, we generally refer to the second decade of life (and sometimes beyond), which includes at least 40 million individuals in this country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2001), there were an estimated 36.6 million 10- to 18-year-olds in the year 2000, and their diversity is comprised of approximately 63% White, 15% Black, 15% Latino, 4% Asian, 1% Native American, and 3% multiethnic individuals. It is also interesting to note that an increasing proportion of American adolescents were born in foreign countries. Lerner and Galambos (1998) have indicated that most of the research that has studied adolescents has depended upon White middle-class samples and, therefore, may be limited in generalizing to minority members. Our discussion refers to research with diverse samples, and we divide the content of the discussion into the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional aspects of development. Obviously, these categories overlap, but they can serve to organize the field and make the information more manageable for mental health counselors to apply in daily work with adolescents.

The physical changes of puberty and their consequent interpretations as body image are among the most dramatic developments of the human life span. Adolescent sexuality represents much more than a biological landmark; it has strong implications for social and emotional growth. Although the sequence of events is fairly standard, there is enormous variability in the timing of pubertal unfolding (Kipke, 1999). Variations by race or gender are not nearly as widespread as between individuals, making the advanced preparation of adolescents a challenge for parents and educators. Graber, Lewinsohn, Seeley, and Brooks-Gunn (1997) have cautioned that adolescents who are significantly out of step with their peers in regard to pubertal timing, especially early maturing girls and later maturing boys, may be at greater risk for a host of psychological problems. …

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