Add To Cart

Section 15
Gender Differences in Adolescents with Unresolved Grief

Question 15 | Test | Table of Contents

Gender Factors in the Grieving Process
The counselor's understanding of the role that gender plays in the bereavement process for adolescents is critical to determining adolescents' respective styles of coping and the need for support in the adaptive process. Adolescent girls and boys will respond differently to the deaths of their mothers, with adolescent daughters traditionally being more negatively impacted by the loss than adolescent sons (Meshot & Leitner, 1993). There are a number of factors that make the experience of the mother's death different for adolescent girls and boys (Chodorow, 1978; Gray, 1987; Parish & Hortin, 1983). These factors include:

  • Differences in styles of relationship building
  • The mother-daughter separation-individuation process
  • The surviving father's response to maternal death/gender differences in the grieving process
  • The daughters' shift to the maternal role
  • Sons' reluctance to acknowledge their grief

Differences in Styles of Relationship Building
Adolescent daughters may be more likely to experience unresolved grief after the deaths of their mothers than will adolescent sons. Daughters tend to place greater importance on relationships with others (Gilligan, 1982). Relationships are more central to a woman's gender identity than to a man's gender identity (Chodorow, 1978; Gilligan, 1982). Given the central importance of relationships to a woman's identity, the loss of the relationship with the mother, in general, causes daughters to experience greater levels of grief than sons.

Meshot and Leitner (1993) found, for example, that women who experienced the death of a parent in adolescence grieved more intensely and for a longer period than did sons who experienced this same loss. This study noted gender differences in the effects of parental death on adolescents. The findings of this study indicated that daughters experienced a greater level of mourning than did sons. Adult women who suffered the loss of a parent in adolescence were found to cry more and to identify more with the deceased than men who experienced the loss of a parent in adolescence. Furthermore, women reported more often than men that they felt that the deceased parent "was still with them" (Meshot & Leitner, 1993, p. 287). In addition, Zisook and Lyons (1990), in their study of psychiatric outpatients, found that women who had experienced the deaths of their mothers were at a higher risk to experience unresolved grief than were men who had experienced this loss. It was also noted that unresolved grief was present more often in response to the death of a mother than to the death of a father. Overall results indicated that women were at greater risk to experience unresolved grief in response to a loss of a significant other and were, consequently, more likely to experience unresolved grief in response to maternal death (Zisook & Lyons, 1990).

Separation-Individuation Process
The separation-individuation process during adolescence is tumultuous and, if a mother should die during this critical time, particularly daughters would be at great risk for complicated grief reactions (Edelman, 1994; LaSorsa & Fodor, 1990). In adolescence, children experience what Blos (1967) referred to as the second individuation process. This separation prepares adolescents to differentiate from their parents so that they can develop relationships with others outside the family.

In order to achieve this separateness, adolescents typically need to question and often reject the values of their parents. This is a part of the process of "de-idealizing" their parents (Steinberg & Silverberg, 1986). Not surprisingly, this typically results in conflict between parents and adolescents. Such conflict can lead to intense guilt and regret if parents die in the midst of this process. If it is the mother who dies, this guilt may be more intense for adolescent daughters than for adolescent sons because of the more turbulent separation-individuation process that occurs between mothers and daughters.

Daughters typically expend more energy de-idealizing their mothers in order to firmly separate. More effort is required to separate because of the daughter's physical resemblance to her mother and because of their greater gender identification (Ruebush, 1994). If a mother dies during separation, the adolescent daughter may look back on this crucial time with her mother with deep regret. As a result, we might expect that daughters will experience a greater degree of unresolved grief.

Surviving Fathers' Response / Gender Differences
A third factor that may contribute to adolescent daughters' greater level of unresolved grief may be the support, or lack of support, that they receive from their fathers after the deaths of their mothers. A lack of support is a risk factor identified with complicated bereavement (Worden, 1991). Adolescent daughters may perceive a lack of support from their fathers because of gender differences in the grief process. Lister (1991) noted that men and women grieve differently. Men frequently take on instrumental roles in response to grief, while females engage in expressive grief. Avoidance is the primary mechanism of instrumental grief. Expressive behavior is the tendency to reminisce about, and weep for, the deceased. Fathers and sons may be more likely to grieve instrumentally, while daughters may be more likely to grieve expressively. As such, daughters may feel a need to grieve overtly, but may find a lack of support or encouragement from their fathers to do so. Daughters may particularly need this opportunity to grieve because of the guilt they feel over their conflicted relationships with their deceased mothers. This lack of opportunity for grief within the family structure could contribute to unresolved grief in both adolescent sons and daughters, but more so for daughters.

Clark et al. (1996) found that adolescents cope better after the death of a parent if the surviving parent encourages them to intermittently reminisce about the deceased parent, a form of expressive grief. They also reported that surviving mothers more often facilitate discussions of the deceased fathers than surviving fathers reminisced about deceased mothers. The father's reluctance to speak about his deceased wife and grieve openly may stem from his conviction that he is the protector of the family and has the obligation to shield his children from the pain of their mother's death. Unfortunately, the father's protective instincts might seriously impair his children's recovery from their mother's death, as well as impair his own recovery process. Parkes (1988) noted that although young widows exhibited more symptoms of emotional disturbance in the first year after the death of their spouses, it was the widows and not the widowers who returned to emotional health more quickly. This trend may reflect the widows' use of a more overt grieving style, which at first renders them somewhat vulnerable, but in the end is most therapeutic. In contrast, the father's initial inhibition of his grief may seem more adaptive, but in the long run may inhibit recovery for both himself and his children. The father's lack of expressive grief may be particularly damaging to daughters who have been socialized to grieve expressively. The result is that the female adolescent's grief is not encouraged or supported, resulting in a delay in the healing process.

Daughters' Shift to the Maternal Role
After the death of the mother, a daughter may feel compelled by her father to take the mother's place as the family's caretaker (Edelman, 1994). Consequently, daughters may feel overwhelmed by stress and responsibility as they try to replace the mother as the caretaker This responsibility often falls onto daughters, even if brothers are present, because daughters are the same sex as the deceased mother and are expected, by the father, to take on a maternal role (Edelman, 1994). These responsibilities may cause daughters to resent their father and may contribute to feelings of anger toward their deceased mother

Parish and Hortin (1983), for instance, found that girls who experienced maternal death and whose fathers did not remarry were significantly more negative in their evaluations of their deceased mothers than were daughters whose fathers had remarried. This difference might reflect the daughters' shouldering of parental responsibilities. Once a father remarries, daughters are probably relieved of their household responsibilities and allowed to resume their status as children, reducing their anger toward their deceased mother and speeding their adjustment process. If the father does not remarry, however, daughters may have to persist in their roles as caregivers, fueling their anger toward their deceased mother and impairing their recovery. It is important to note that sons who lost a mother in childhood or adolescence had just the opposite reaction (Parish & Hortin, 1983). Those sons whose fathers remarried were more angry toward the deceased mother than those whose fathers did not remarry. This difference might reflect the interrupted closeness between the son and father with the introduction of the stepmother, rekindling feelings of abandonment brought upon by the death of the mother The son's reaction probably has less to do with household/care responsibilities than does the daughter's reaction.

Sons' Reluctance to Acknowledge Their Grief
Although it is theorized that adolescent daughters will experience greater levels of unresolved grief, this is not to say that adolescent boys will not experience unresolved grief and find it difficult to adjust to the loss of their mothers (Clark et al., 1996). Counselors should be aware that adolescent boys may be as grief stricken as adolescent girls, but that the boys may be more reluctant than adolescent girls to express their grief. Reluctance to openly express grief is a common male response in the face of a death or loss (Lister, 1991). The son observes his father's stoic response and models his father's behavior Furthermore, Worden (1991) noted that particularly boys over the age of twelve were told after the funeral of the deceased parent that they had to grow up. Such injunctions further enforce the adolescent son's belief that he must conceal his grief.

In a study of college students who were asked to evaluate descriptions of fictional male and female grievers, fictional male grievers who grieved more expressively were rated more negatively by the students than were the female grievers who were described as grieving expressively (Kubitz, Thornton, & Robertson, 1989). These findings demonstrate that there are strong social prohibitions against a display of expressive grief by men. These prohibitions may be particularly strong for adolescent boys who have a great deal invested in maintaining a calm demeanor. However, adolescent boys may pay a heavy toll for this control. In order to maintain their controlled demeanor, adolescent boys may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate and to avoid the pain of grieving. Given these grief reactions, mental health professionals might be more likely to misunderstand the experiences of the grieving adolescent boy. Unresolved male grief may be misinterpreted as delinquency or a conduct disorder. Therefore, it is imperative that both adolescent girls and boys who experience the death of their mothers be given an opportunity to work through their grief with a caring professional.
- Lenhardt, Ann & Bernadette McCourt; Adolescent Unresolved Grief in Response to the Death of a Mother; Professional School Counseling; Feb 2000; Vol. 3; Issue 3.

Personal Reflection Exercise #7
The preceding section contained information about gender differences in adolescents with unresolved grief.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Howard Sharp, K. M., Russell, C., Keim, M., Barrera, M., Gilmer, M. J., Foster Akard, T., Compas, B. E., Fairclough, D. L., Davies, B., Hogan, N., Young-Saleme, T., Vannatta, K., & Gerhardt, C. A. (2018). Grief and growth in bereaved siblings: Interactions between different sources of social support. School Psychology Quarterly, 33(3), 363–371.

Oosterhoff, B., Kaplow, J. B., & Layne, C. M. (2018). Links between bereavement due to sudden death and academic functioning: Results from a nationally representative sample of adolescents. School Psychology Quarterly, 33(3), 372–380.

Salinas, C. L. (2021). Playing to heal: The impact of bereavement camp for children with grief. International Journal of Play Therapy, 30(1), 40–49.

Why does the loss of a maternal relationship cause daughters to experience greater levels of grief than sons? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 16
Table of Contents