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Adolescent Understandings of Death
Preservation of life would appear to be the natural instinct of healthy adolescents who are approaching their physical peaks (Noppe & Noppe, 1991). Does excessive risk taking suggest that feeling immortal is the dominant perspective of adolescents? Is it, instead, possible that what is really occurring is that fear of mortality is driving adolescents to test the limits of life by tempting fate with activities that only seem to beg for death? The closer to the edge that one goes, the greater the thrill of defeating death. This defiance may gradually help to overcome the expectation that death is always an instant away. Despite the knowledge that death is inevitable and closer each day, learning to cope with this idea is done by living life to the fullest, which inherently has some risks. Adolescents, consciously or otherwise, may pursue this ambiguity to a greater extent than children or adults, in part, due to brain development that enhances the need for excitement (Spear, 2000). The overall vibrancy of adolescent biological transformation, exactly the opposite of death, spurs positive feelings that contradict the unnatural causes of death (e.g., accidents, suicide, and homicide) that account for a large proportion of teenage demise (Kann et al., 2000).
Physical risk allows the adolescent to cheat death and simultaneously earn social approval (Noppe & Noppe, 1996). Reckless driving, binge drinking, diving off high cliffs, trying dangerous drugs, fist fighting, highly restrictive eating, using deadly weapons, feats of athletic endurance without proper training, or even thinking about and planning such actions may provide an outlet for dispelling the tensions between fear of death and the embracing of life. Stress can be relieved by compulsive eating, repetitive exercise, viewing extreme videos, watching others, talking with peers, or other behaviors that flirt with boundaries that are sensible and life sustaining. Sexual experimentation, within the shadow of pregnancy, abortion, STDs and HIV/AIDS, also hints at treading the line between developing physical maturity and potentially fatal consequences. Educational programs, increased condom usage, improvements in combating diseases, and related practices may have halted the progression toward increasingly unsafe activities and rising rates of alarming statistics; but these patterns of behavior are still not uncommon for too many adolescents. Adults must understand that, for a teenager, the simple act of smoking a cigarette may not merely be an attempt to gain status or to feel like a grownup but may also represent a snub of their ultimate destiny, which is to die like every other living thing.
Much has been made of the adolescent thinking process becoming more logical and systematic compared to that of children (Piaget, 1972). This cognitive sophistication serves many invaluable purposes; yet it also leads to the adolescent's contemplating death and nonexistence. The clash of life and death can be confusing and depressing for adults to confront. Why should a teenager be expected to accept such ambiguity without any difficulty? For example, in this culture, there is tension between modernist conceptions of coping with death that imply a return to normal functioning as quickly as possible and postmodern notions in which grief and romantic attachments with the bereaved are to be maintained (Stroebe, Gergen, Gergen, & Stroebe, 1992). Adolescents who are searching for their own identity may have more challenging tasks in understanding logical approaches to death and dying than younger children who function at a concrete logical level and can somewhat more easily accept the rules of life and death without being bothered by shades of gray in evaluating alternative meanings to existence. The rituals and accoutrements of death — funerals, cemeteries, and caskets — serve as appropriate distractions for dealing with a death. Adolescents cannot so readily ignore lingering and mysterious questions of reincarnation, communication with the dead, and other spiritual concerns.
Acceptance of death as the logical conclusion to life may be an almost incomprehensible abstraction (Noppe & Noppe, 1996). In order to avoid this dreaded inevitability, an adolescent might chose to engage in risky behaviors or to play with death phenomena in a more personal manner, for instance, by writing a last will and testament, pondering a type of casket, composing funeral music or poetry, creating morbid art works, exploring internet sites that deal with death, and engaging in other related endeavors. Sometimes the abstractions or games can become quite real in that adolescents are confronted with the death of a grandparent, a friend, a pet, or other loved one. This forces them to place a temporary hold on avoiding the ultimate in despair. Even teenagers who do not directly encounter a death may consider issues like environmental destruction, nuclear warfare, international terrorism, a stray asteroid, and so forth as potential threats that worry them and make life sometimes seem to be too challenging to confront. The natural optimism of adolescents in conjunction with their egocentric perspectives, as described by Elkind's (1967) personal fable concept (in which adolescents believe "nothing can happen to me" or "getting pregnant happens to other girls"), provides a strong underlying tension between embracing life and knowledge of death.
Due to the significance of peer relations during adolescence, the absence of healthy friendships may create a form of social death (Noppe & Noppe, 1996). Isolation or rejection by peers makes the adolescent's life appear to be meaningless and empty. This painful and dehumanizing process remains a potential threat for any adolescent. There is always a possibility, for those teenagers who have friends, to lose them or to be ostracized by them. Thus, there is a social tension that all adolescents experience at least on a subconscious level. They may do anything to retain the support of their friends, rather than face a situation of loneliness. Such alienation may lead to depression or even suicide attempts. The intense scrutiny of their peer group is what frightens adolescents who may interpret a series of small, interpersonal difficulties as painful little deaths. From their point of view, it might be preferable to go through only one, final death experience than constantly deal with the pressure of repeated instances of social misery, shame or humiliation, and anxiety.
The social contexts of adolescence are quite broad and may present conflicting norms and behavioral standards that are difficult to reconcile (Noppe & Noppe, 1996). Social tensions exist among interactions with friends, classmates, parents, teachers, siblings, and others. The correct patterns of behavior within one context may be distinctly different in another setting. If the adolescent is caught acting inappropriately, he or she may regard the indiscretions as a form of social death. As a cover for embarrassment, therefore, exaggerated misbehaviors may create even greater social tensions. When contemporary issues of death are part of the conversations and environments of the adolescent, heightened fears and anxieties may arise. The media is filled with references to war, murder, famine, disease, abortion, the death penalty, physician-assisted suicide, accidents, and a myriad of other problems. Adolescents react to these concerns in different ways depending upon their personalities and cultural expectations. Grief, mourning, and reactions to loss exist within the contexts of community, family, religion, peer networks, and other forms of social support. The individuality of each adolescent in comprehending and coping with death is compromised by the significant ambiguities inherent in his or her total social world.
In the realm of emotional development, there are also differences between adolescents compared to children or adults (Noppe & Noppe, 1996). Younger children are not concerned with issues of identity, nor are they as dependent upon peer relationships as teenagers and, therefore, may be less impacted by the concepts of loneliness and ultimate nonexistence. Likewise, adults have a more secure sense of who they are and also are not as controlled by peer expectations as are adolescents. The hypothetical consideration of one's own death, as part of the threads of the totality of the life cycle, cannot be a comfortable notion for an adolescent to accept. Creating a unified sense of identity and knowing who one is must be reconciled with not being at all. Adolescents encounter this dilemma in the context of a system of values, philosophy of life, and particular spiritual or religious beliefs. Sterling and Van Horn (1989) found that adolescents who were at the psychosocial moratorium, that is, at the peak of the struggle with identity formation, had the highest levels of death anxiety. Research indicates (a) that concerns about death for themselves and significant others is common amongst adolescents (Corr, Nabe, & Corr, 2003), and (b) that death anxiety is relatively high for older adolescents (Thorson & Powell, 1994). Several investigations of adolescent self-esteem, for instance, as defined by greater discrepancy between real and ideal selves (Neimeyer & Chapman, 1980), indicate that lower levels of death anxiety are associated with higher self-esteem.
Achieving a stable sense of self is facilitated by a healthy attachment to parents. With independence looming, the adolescent must negotiate some degree of detachment from the family, provoking feelings of loss. The mourning of childhood is very comparable to the death of the adolescent's past. Coping with this type of grief forces the adolescent to transfer some elements of the parent-child relationship onto the peer network (Holmes, 1993). Secure attachments can provide an effective base for exploring the world and attempting to establish a mature identity. Adolescence is a critical transition that marks the death of childhood and the beginnings of adult developmental stages. Emotional reactions to a loss can be devastating to the adolescent, whether the loss is the perceived detachment from parents; actual losses that are literal deaths such as the suicide of a friend; or metaphorical deaths such as breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. In fact, Meshot and Leitner (1993) have observed that the extent of grief is often much stronger in teenagers than in adults. Death is a profoundly important issue for adolescents, whether it is real or merely romanticized. Plopper and Ness (1993), in a content analysis of top-40 music during the last half of the 20th century, found that songs with death-related themes were the most popular.
There is sufficient evidence that adolescents are grappling with life and death contrasts as a normal part of their development (Noppe & Noppe, 1991). Thus, these years help to construct a personal stamp on understanding death because adolescents are (a) engaging in both life affirmation and death acknowledgment, (b) questioning and assuming different belief systems regarding death and the afterlife prior to settling onto a more permanent value system, and (c) incorporating the very reality of personal mortality into their evolving sense of identity. Tensions exist between these polarities, consciously or otherwise, that are distinct for this phase of the life span. The majority of teenagers resolve such dilemmas with generally favorable and healthy outcomes as they make the transition to adulthood. Other adolescents, however, succumb to close encounters with death, if not death itself, through substance abuse, suicide, eating disorders, delinquency, gang violence, and other forms of reckless behavior. The notions adolescents have about the meaning of death, in the contexts of physical, cognitive, social, and emotional growth, highlight the challenges confronting adults and the various types of professionals who work with teenagers on a regular basis.
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