Mental Health Monday–Teen Guilt

This week, Kimmy (a writer of YA paranormal and QueryTracker forum bud) asks:

My seventeen-year-old protagonist lives with the guilt of her father’s death and mother’s car accident (she feels she caused both and she doesn’t really know how to handle her feelings). What type of behaviors can we expect from a teen carrying this type of grief inside?

Great question, Kimmy! Striving for authenticity and accuracy is BIG in the Young Adult genre. If a character’s reaction seems forced, contrived, or flat, a teen will pick it up in seconds.

That being said, each person reacts to situations in their own individual way. Because of this, the best advice I can give is to really “research” your character. Know her inside and out. To do this, some writers use “interviews.” Others use character sketches. I write a whole novel, then start over when I finally figure my characters out. (Um, yeah, that was sort of a joke, but totally true, LOL!)

But seriously, knowing—like really KNOWING—your character will show you what response she’d have.

Now (if you allow me some artistic license to bring this to the mental health arena), someone carrying around guilt could experience it to the extent where it significantly interferes with their functioning.

A teen grieving the death of her father—especially if she thinks she caused it—could be experiencing a range of diagnoses from bereavement (a sorta fancy term for grieving), complicated bereavement, or even major depression, sometimes with psychotic features and suicidal ideations if severe enough.

In bereavement, one could see any range of emotional, physical, social, cognitive, even philosophic responses. Crying, expressions of anger, nightmares, appetite problems, and even hallucinations (generally in the form of hearing the deceased call the person’s name) can be normal.

In complicated bereavement, there is an added time component. For example, if the death occurred a year or two ago and the person starts to worsen.

Major depression is a constellation of symptoms, usually including depressed mood (for a majority of the day) for at least two weeks, change in appetite and sleep, feelings of GUILT, worthlessness, hopelessness, helplessness, decreased (or increased) energy, anhedonia (loss of pleasure or ordinarily enjoyable activities), and suicidal ideations.

Teenagers have a much higher risk of attempting suicide as a reaction to grief. They also may display sudden changes of behavior such as becoming a delinquent or an over-achiever. Some will engage in repetitive behaviors or mind-numbing type things like playing video games (my apologies to those of you who enjoy gaming) as a means to drown out the emotions.

Thanks, Kimmy, for such a thought-provoking topic!


Let me know if you have a question for Mental Health Monday! And, as always, the information contained in this blog series is for writing purposes only. It is NOT to be construed as medical treatment or advice.

Be sure to check out Lydia’s post on Medical Monday.

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16 comments on “Mental Health Monday–Teen Guilt

  1. Ciara Knight says:

    Oh, I so love Mental Health Monday. I think Kimmy will have a better understanding after this post. I can’t wait to get my character question in. 🙂

  2. Kimmy says:

    Laura, thank you for tackling this difficult topic! I am going to copy and paste your great words of wisdom right into my writing program and refer to it as I write – and you have given me a FANTASTIC idea for my poor teenager! I appreciate your wonderful post!

  3. Lynn Rush says:

    What a great question. I have a couple young characters in a couple of my novels that this information will go very well with. Thanks! Love Mental Health Mondays.

  4. Lydia Kang says:

    This comes in so handy for my WIP. Thanks Laura!

  5. Charli Mac says:

    My heroine was also in a car accident with her parents, and both died. Recurring theme, huh. LOL. Thanks for the insight. I have this event having a deep impact on her relationships throughout her life. She was nine at the time. Great question and great post.

  6. Fascinating post! I love your mental health Mondays. 🙂

  7. Great post, Laura.

    Kimmy, the trama of motherloss, fatherloss and a car accident guilt sound like wonderful fodder for creating a dynamic, troubled character.

  8. I love the way you broke this down. Loving this post!!!

  9. lbdiamond says:

    Thanks for the Mental Health Monday LURVE!!!

  10. Grief and guilt combined seem like a heavy weight for a teen. I’m wondering what cause people of any age to assume guilt that isn’t truly valid. For instance, children often feel responsible for the marital breakup of their parents. Thank you for Mental Health Monday. Blessings to you…

  11. I think you nailed it with that description. That sort of guilt would really mess with a young person’s mind.

  12. Great post! I have a character who’s dealing with guilt as well as PTSD. This was really helpful. 😀

  13. Jamie Grey says:

    Fantastic post! This will definitley help with my own characters!

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