Improving social support for teenagers with parental loss in secondary school environment

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This research aims to explore the experiences and needs of social support after the teenager’s parental loss within the secondary school environment and proposes a design intervention.

Teenagers perceive grief more intensely compared to younger ages and adults since it aligns with the rapid transitions of their adolescence. In this vulnerable stage it is important to invest in support to prevent negative consequences on their mental health in the long term. Research stresses the importance of social support for the adaptation of bereavement. Considering the social support, schools are crucial organizations, since teenagers spend a large amount of time there.

The current state
In general, teenagers want to be seen, heard, and acknowledged in their loss. At the same time, they do want to be treated the same as their peers. These ambiguous needs make providing support from the school environment complex. Additionally, the community members, such as teachers and peers, often encounter a lack of experience and knowledge in offering social support.

This research identified that the lack of a protocol or uniform plan results in each teenager perceiving different levels of social support. Also, the experienced support decreases over time, even though their desire for support remains.
Bereaved teenagers often rely on chance encounters with individuals within the educational system, such as mentors, teachers, or peers, to determine whether their desired social support needs will be met. Some teenagers do experience a lack in receiving social support, and feelings may arise that there is no space for grieving in the school environment.

The need
Therefore, teachers, peers, and bereaved teenagers need empowerment to initiate and maintain the social support. A design intervention should provide clear pathways to highlight opportunities for support and offer guidance in having supportive interactions.

The design focus
The primary focus of the design is to offer tools to community health workers in order to enhance the social support network in school. This involves facilitating opportunities for bereaved teenagers to easily connect within the school with preferred school staff, the natural helpers. Natural helpers are members of a community to whom other network members naturally turn to for advice, support and other types of aid. The natural helper has thereby their own support from other community health workers within the school, the school social workers, empowering them to offer support.

The design
As a result of the design process, the card set called Handreiking Rouw was developed. The toolbox, provided to the teenager by the school after the loss of a parent, contains a variety of cards presenting feelings, needs, experiences, and suggestions.

Handreiking makes it easier for bereaved teenagers to communicate with natural helpers by providing them with low-key options to get in touch with particular staff members. The toolkit also provides schools with a consistent approach to support bereaved teenagers. This involves providing mentors with instructions on how to welcome these teenagers, enabling teachers to have an empathic understanding of parental loss, and establishing a support network within the school for natural helpers that enables them to provide support to bereaved teenagers.

An extensive evaluation with the involved stakeholders and experts with different backgrounds showed the potential of the design for enhancing social support within the school environment. However, future research is required to evaluate the effectiveness of enhancing social support.