Grief is a complicated emotion and I can say that as an adult. For a child, I presume it’s a concept more than just a little complicated. I was a teen when I lost my grandmother and I remember feeling sad, but there was an air of grief – or something like that – that I just couldn’t understand. I knew it was a loss but I didn’t know how to process the loss, the grief of losing the first of my grandparents.
When an adult experiences a loss, they know the feeling, the emotion, and the concept of grief. As a child, it can be hard to define grief and even harder to untangle the complex web of emotions weaving in their hearts and minds.
Grief in children can vary depending on the child’s age – at least how they experience the loss and process the feelings of loss that come with it. While many adults in a child’s life prefer hiding the information, they can unintentionally cause the child more stress. They know something’s wrong and not getting the validation can make them feel, well…stressed.
Grief is always accompanied by a slew of overwhelming emotions and having a support system to help through the loss can be validating. It’s OK to seek help when grief becomes excessive.
The same applies to a child.
In this article, let’s take a look at how grief affects children and how you can help them process the grief the right way.
How Does Grief Affect Children?
When we talk about grief in children, it’s important to note that the most important factor that we should be considering is – the age of the child. Even though toddlers and young children don’t fully understand the extent of loss, they can still experience the emotions and feelings that come while coping with a loss.
Now grief and related emotions don’t just come with losing a parental figure or adult. A child may experience bereavement if they lose a pet, say goodbye to their hometown, or deal with their parents’ separation or divorce.
Grief in children is more often than not temporary and eventually, they get over the loss, however, there are times when the feelings may linger and cause prolonged grief disorder, depression caused by grief, or other mental health conditions.
Various factors influence the duration of grief in children and according to research studies, parents or caregivers can play a major role in helping a child deal with grief.
Now, let’s see how a child manifests grief reactions by age.
Understanding Grief Through Ages 1. Toddlers
Grief in toddlers can be quite complicated. They don’t understand the meaning of death and loss and might continue to ask for the one who’s passed. Toddlers have inquisitive minds so they want to know what death is and all the uncomfortable questions about death.
While it may be uncomfortable and difficult to answer all these questions, as adults, we must answer them as often as they ask. While asking questions is one type of reaction you’ll get from toddlers, there are other signs of grief in young ones.
They might include;
Changes in sleep patterns
Symptoms of separation anxiety
Interest in new games
Toddlers learn through play so they might often recreate scenarios with their toys. If this happens, let them play as it’s a part of processing grief. While these kinds of play are supposed to be temporary, if you do see no signs of stopping, then you can consult a specialist.
2. Children (Over 5 Y/O)
Young children over 5 years old are better able to understand the concept of death and loss. They know it’s a permanent thing and pretty much irreversible. However, this too is complicated. Young children believe that death is a thing that does not or will not happen to their loved ones and this may cause them to keep asking after the lost loved one.
In children, grief may look a lot like anger and aggression. They might even get bouts of sadness but most of the time it is aggression that you need to watch out for. Other grief reactions might include;
Anger towards a loved one
Neediness or being clingy
As a parent or caregiver, you can start communicating with the child and help them understand what they are feeling. Help them with the basic concept of death and everything that comes with it so that their wild imagination does not make things worse for them in their heads.
Grief reactions in teens can be best described as out of control. They often feel overwhelmed, out of control, and fearful. Teenagers lash out and try to process their feelings by engaging in reckless behaviors. Often through alcohol or substance use. Some teens might even devote their time to healthy distractions such as creating art, talking to support people, or engaging in a hobby.
Grief in teenagers can be unpredictable, but the response to the loss may depend on the factors related to the loss itself, such as;
The cause of death
The person they lost (parent, friend, sibling, grandparent, etc.)
If they’ve previously experienced the loss of a loved one
How emotionally mature the teen is
Sometimes, the teenager might not want to talk about the loss and would instead withdraw into themselves. They might even forgo engaging in social activities. You’ll typically notice symptoms like increased irritability, sleep disruptions, etc. in teens dealing with grief.
With teens, talking to them and encouraging them to open up about their feelings is the best course of action.
How To Help A Child Process Grief? 1. Let Them Know It’s OK To Grieve
There is no right or wrong way to grieve and it’s important to let your child know about this. If your child seems indifferent about the loss even when everyone around them is sad, then it’s ok. It might take a while for them to understand the loss. It’s also normal to expect a delayed grief reaction when toddlers and children are concerned.
2. Talk To Them
Encourage your child to talk about whatever they are feeling. However, it’s best if you don’t push them to talk. Let them take their time but when the time comes, listen to them. It can also be difficult to say what they are feeling, but they will be taking cues from you, so if you model healthy communication, they’ll copy that. Spend time with them and show them that it’s OK to cry but it’s also OK to be happy.
3. Share Healthy Coping Tips
Again, your child will be taking cues from you, so if you want your child to process their grief properly, then share with them healthy coping strategies. Tell them – or better yet – show them that it’s OK to ask for help, practice self-care, and even take breaks when feelings become too much. Little things that you can model for your child will matter so be careful of how you model your grief in front of them.
4. Create And Follow A Routine
Having a routine will help you and your child feel a sense of security. Routines are good because they follow a predictable pattern. Because of the loss, there might be some changes to the normal routine so creating a routine that’s close to the previous one would bring some sense of comfort.
5. Set A Remembrance Ritual
There might be times when the sense of loss might ring louder than on other days. To avoid overwhelming and unpredictable responses, it’s recommended that you create a remembrance ritual. Rituals can help grieving people with a sense of connection and allow them to include a part of the lost loved one in their daily lives.
Here are some ideas to try;
Talk about the lost loved one regularly
Celebrate birthdays or anniversaries
Light a candle for the lost one every morning
Create a memory book
Listen to their favorite song
Seeking Professional Help…
Grief comes with a large range of emotions – from anger to denial and from aggression to numbness. Whatever the reaction of your child is related to the loss they have experienced, it’s important to know that it’s OK to ask for help.
While we, as adults in their lives, might bring them comfort, there might be times when they need a little more help than what we can offer. Grief after a loss can be complicated and sometimes out of our control. And during those times, the help of a counselor can be all you need to right everything back.
Treatment options such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help make sense of the emotions and can work in managing troublesome emotions such as depression, prolonged grief disorder, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
Final Thoughts On Grief…
We all experience grief in our lives. Sometimes those experiences can be different but the feelings at the heart of them remain the same. This holds even for children and teenagers. With the right encouragement, communication, and coping strategies, you can help your child deal with grief.
While grief in children might look different from grief in adults, the stages are the same. If you’re facing trouble helping your child cope with the loss, you can connect with a grief counselor or reach out to a therapist to learn more.
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