Many parents are wondering about pandemic related grief, and how to help their child cope with loss and grief. We also honor that November 19th is child grief day.
Children & Grief: How Can Caregivers Help?
Thank you to Melissa Fellin, MSW, RSW, PhD, for her input to this article. Melissa is a child and family therapist providing play therapy to children ages 2-11.
What is Grief and Trauma?
Grief is a healthy response to loss. According to Children’s Grief Awareness Day, 1 in 5 children will experience the death of someone close to them by the age of 18. If we consider loss events beyond death in the family, that number rises significantly. Divorce, death of a friend, death of a pet, moving, a breakup, diagnosis, and trauma are losses. As parents and caregivers, it is helpful to prepare ourselves to recognize when children and teens are grieving.
Of course, grief and loss are hard topics, and we often do not know what to say to a child who is grieving. While you know you cannot always protect your child from pain, you want to help them feel loved and supported while they hurt. If you are hoping to learn how to help a grieving child, it means you are likely doing everything you can to provide a safe space to heal. You are doing a great job already, and you are not alone.
How Can I Help My Grieving Child Express Their Feelings?
First, it’s important to note that grief is a uniquely personal experience, though there are developmental stages of grief responses. Children can go from one emotion to the next, in minutes, act as though the event never happened, or talk about it with anyone. While some of these responses may be confusing to adults, they are all entirely normal grief responses. As are with cues of anxiety and depression, persistent physical symptoms, changes in diet and sleep habits, difficulty focusing or isolation which are responses to grief to monitor. Explosive emotions and withdrawing from talking about the loss can be hard to not take personally, so learning these are age appropriate grief responses is helpful. Offering children an emotionally safe space for them to express their feelings without interruption or fixes will help tremendously. Giving them choice in the matter wherever possible is empowering; to attend or not attend a funeral, for instance. Parents and caregivers can offer safety, by being consistent, modelling healthy emotional expression, family activities, and routines. Extra listening, empathy and love goes a long way too. It is a very big offering we make to stand by our children, as they grieve, so be sure to attend to your own self-care and grief process. Adults in caregiving roles need to assess their own feelings surrounding the loss and if it involves death, their comfort level with talking about death and dying.
Second, this is a very robust topic with a lot of important conversation that hinges on your child’s developmental level (and the level of their grief). The Child Mind Institute has an excellent list of practical tips you can include in your day to day conversations.
Grief Responses by a Child’s Age
If a parent or family member is also grieving, it is helpful to show your feelings to your child, by doing so you help normalize grief and create a safe space for your child to express their feelings too. With older children, modelling is especially powerful if an older child does not want to talk as their form of expression. Choosing other forms of expression, such as being present, making a tributeP, writing a song, are equally powerful forms of expression. Parents can create a loving, safe feeling environment for their child, continue familiar routines and family activities as much as possible.
The following grief stages and behaviours related to a child’s age need to be considered as somewhat cumulative. They are described well by The Dougy Center (The National Center for Grieving Children & Families):
5-8 years old
– Disrupted sleep, nightmares, changes in eating, Physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches, body pain)
– Regressive behaviors – bedwetting, needing help
– Short periods of strong reaction, mixed with acting as though nothing happened
– Re-enacting death through play, telling the story to strangers
8-12 years old
– Express big energy through behavior sometimes seen as acting out
– Anxiety and concern for safety of self and others
– Difficulty concentrating and focusing
– Increased risk taking: drugs/alcohol, unsafe behaviors, reckless driving
– Uncomfortable discussing the death or their experiences with parents and caregivers
– Attempts to take on caregiving/parent role with younger siblings and other adults
– May have thoughts of suicide and self-harm
– Hypervigilance/increased sensitivity to noise, movement, light
Signs My Grieving Child Might Need Extra Support
In a list from Very Well Family provided here, there are warning signs of when a child might need additional support. Many of these responses are listed above as common responses, so it is the severity, risk level and persistence we want to monitor, and escalate to a professional if needed.
– Frequent bad dreams about death or nightmares
– Loss of interest in activities
– Repeated complaints of headaches, stomachaches, or other otherwise unknown physical symptoms
– Increased behavior problems
– Mood changes
– A decline in school or social performance
– Debilitating fear of death or loss
If you believe your child would benefit from the additional support of a professional, there are several types of therapy that are helpful for children who are grieving.
Therapies for Grieving Children
Grief counseling for children helps the child grieve in healthy ways, to better understand and cope with their emotions related to their loss, and find ways to accept and honour their loss (when it’s appropriate to do so). Grief therapy modalities for children include:
Play therapy can be used for children of all ages, especially when including expressive arts. The child’s need to play is not only for fun, but is a way children communicate and express themselves. Through this expression, a counselor, therapist or psychologist can find many clues about the child’s home life, school, beliefs, and emotional state. A child who cannot play is denied her right to mourn.
Individual talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy can provide adolescents a safe space to talk about and process grief. Working with a licensed professional who specializes in grief makes certain the child will be supported in a safe, healthy way.
Group therapy is a structured modality that brings together adolescents who are coping with loss. Facilitated in a safe environment, surrounded by people who can relate can be incredibly healing, especially for teens and young adults who are ready for relationships outside of the family unit and who might be reluctant to talk about their grief with parents or caregivers. Listening, witnessing, observing can be as powerful as sharing.
Family therapy is often used in conjunction with individual therapy. The goal of family therapy is to meet the needs of every family member, so the family can function together as a whole. It is often used when a loss has affected the whole family. Considering the family is a system made up of individuals, support for all is ideal.
Remember that grieving takes time and happens over stages. Healthy grieving leads to acceptance and honouring the loss as a part of day to day living. Grief is individual, over months of initial stage response, years in the immediate stage and a lifetime of long-term grief, resurfacing at life events like graduation, marriage, birth, death. Healthy coping means accepting the loss and finding our way to honour the loss in day to day life. We, as parents and caregivers, do well to think grief can become our child’s friend.
*This article was originally posted on March 13, 2020. We have added new related articles to help parents delve deeper into the topic of child grief and loss.