Grief and Healing in the Juvenile Justice System

Some children and youth become involved with the juvenile justice system because they are accused of committing a delinquent or criminal act. Other youth come into contact with the system for status offenses—actions that are illegal only because of a youth’s age—such as truancy, underage drinking, and running away from home. Not all of these cases, however, are formally processed through the courts.  The active involvement of parents – whether as recipients, extenders, or managers of services – during their youth’s experience with the juvenile justice system is widely assumed to be crucial.

How Juvenile Justice System Affects Behavior

Youth involved with the juvenile justice system often have mental health and/or substance abuse problems. These typically affect their academic performance, behavior, and relationships with peers and adults.  Many youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system have experienced academic failure, disengagement from school, and/or school disciplinary problems. Academic outcomes for these youth are generally less positive than those of youth who do not come into contact with the system.

Grief in the Juvenile Justice System

A report from the Jacksonville-based Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, identified 11 common experiences that specifically incarcerated girls had gone through, including homelessness, foster-care placement, pregnancy, loss of family members, running away, suspension and substance abuse.  Though many of these experiences intersect with incarcerated boys as well.  Discover how grief and loss can push female teens into the Juvenile Justice System in an article published by The Florida Times-Union.

At the epicenter of issues for many in the Juvenile Justice System are grief and loss. Often times the grief goes untreated but the impact of loss then can show up in a variety of ways, including running away, acting out, becoming withdrawn or turning to substance abuse.

The way institutions such as schools, child protection agencies, and the juvenile justice system respond to a child, teen, and young adults’ grief can further their feelings of disconnection from their community.  Suspension disconnects them from school. Foster-care placement disconnects them more from their family. A residential placement further disconnects them from their community.

Children, teens, and young adults in the system need to be first and foremost, seen as the youth that they are.  Seeing them as youth who have existing strengths, assets, and wisdom; youth with major life stressors and trauma histories; with survival and coping skills, some of which are unsafe, unhealthy, and illegal, and some of which are healthy, safe, and creative.

One of the most important things we can do for young people is to model pro–social and pro–community behavior. The following are some helpful tips for connecting with children, teens, and young adults in respectful ways no matter how they are behaving:

  • Listen to them, hear what they say without judging, assigning motivation, feeling the need to agree or disagree with them, or questioning authenticity.
  • Let them know you care about them, even when they make mistakes and demonstrate poor decision making—remind them that we all make mistakes. Dehumanization is the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment. This can lead to increased isolation and violence.
  • Acknowledge their strengths and skills—help them to use these in pro–social ways.
  • Acknowledge and praise their efforts and the good things they do no matter how small.
  • Don’t buy into the resistance—oftentimes when they are acting “tough” and as if they don’t care, this is a smoke screen for fear, confusion, and feelings of hurt and shame.
  • Don’t take what they say and do personally.
  • Let them know you have faith in them and provide encouragement every step of the way.
  • Be respectful and “real” with them; don’t withhold important information to “protect” them. Ask them what they need and what is in their best interest.


Young people with a prisoner in the family often suffer loneliness, humiliation, and stigmatization which may lead to varying forms of grief.  Become a member of The American Academy of Bereavement today to find more resources on grief.