Children can have difficulty processing emotions, but there are ways that you can help in times of grief. These tips can help you help them.
Everyone has different ways of coping with grief, and children are no exception. Small children may not be able to process what happens when a loved one passes. At the same time, elementary-aged children, older children, and teens also have different reaction processes. No matter what age a person is, processing grief is hard. It’s even more challenging to watch a child struggle with the process. Here is how you can help them cope during such a difficult time.
Common Reactions Children Have to Grief
Children may react to grief in many ways. Reactions typically vary based on age, and it’s essential to know what to look out for in each age group. It will help you better understand what is happening and know when to help.
Very young children may begin looking for the person who has passed, asking where they are or when they are coming back, crying, or clinging to those close to them more often. They may become overly fearful and experience an attachment disorder, afraid to have people leave them at daycare or with a babysitter.
How to help: Toddlers most likely do not grasp the concept of death, so you may need to explain to them many times that the person they lost is not coming back. It can be emotionally trying for adults and the child alike to repeat the conversation. The best way to help a toddler through this time is to speak in a gentle, calming tone, give them lots of snuggles and attention, and reassure them that things will be okay. Let them know that you are sad too, but you are there for them and that nothing bad is going to happen to them.
Children Aged 4 to 7 Years Old
Children who are school-aged, but still young, often have similar reactions as toddlers, but may also experience nightmares, bedwetting, be quiet and withdrawn, and can even regress to toddler and infant-like behaviors. Additionally, they may begin to act out either at home or at school. They may throw things, yell, become angry quickly, or experience extreme anxiety.
How to help: Just as toddlers, young children may also have difficulty grasping the concept of death, and you may have to have the same repeated conversations with them. At this age, as they start to understand more complex subjects than toddlers, you can begin to explain the process of death. It is also important to maintain a routine, reassure them that they are safe, and acknowledge their feelings as being valid.
Elementary School-Aged Children (Typically 7 to 10 Years Old)
Children of this age can present unique challenges when dealing with grief, as they are often developed enough to understand the concept of death but do not yet accept it. Elementary school-aged children may also have nightmares or trouble sleeping. They may experience increased anxiety and fear, not want to go to school, have difficulty with paying attention or begin acting out in class or at home when they did not have problems before. Children of this age may also start to ask a lot of questions about death, some of which may be morbid.
How to help: Be patient and answer all the questions a child has about death. Help them find ways to remember the person they have lost fondly. For example, if a grandparent made them a baby blanket, it can be helpful to give it to them and remind them that it was made with love. Let them know they were and still are deeply loved by the person who has passed and that you are always there for them to talk about feelings.
Children in Middle School (Typically 10 to 13 Years Old)
Middle school is often a challenging time for kids who are not experiencing grief. The passing of a loved one can make it even harder when they are already going through so many changes. Middle school-aged children may develop obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and always worry about whether something bad is about to happen to other loved ones. They may feel guilty or as if they caused their loved one’s death, even if they were not close to the situation. Additionally, they may experience issues with identity. This can be particularly true if it is a parent who passes, as they feel different from all of their friends.
How to help: Children of this age typically fully grasp the concept of death. The most important thing is to be emotionally supportive and let them know that many adults love and care for them who are there to help.
Children Aged 13+
Teenage years are another challenging time, even without grief. Teenagers’ reactions to death and grief may closely mirror that of adults. They may begin to isolate themselves, pretend that they don’t care about what has happened, or become seemingly unable to participate in daily activities. Just as grown-ups do, there is a broad spectrum of how they may react. Teenagers can develop clinical depression following the death of a loved one.
How to help: At this age, it is appropriate to have open, honest, and frank conversations. Never scold them or punish them for their reactions, but rather speak to them from a place of love and understanding. It’s crucial that you never tell them to “get over it” or “pull it together.” Allow them to process their feelings and relate to them.
When to Seek Professional Help
There are times when a child’s grieving process requires professional attention. Know that there is nothing wrong with this, and it is no shortcoming or fault of yours. Since everyone processes grief differently, some children may need guidance from a counselor for how to cope.
Signs that a child should get grief counseling include:
- Depression that lasts three months or more
- Angry outbursts that involve violence or threats of violence
- Talk of suicide
- An inability to participate in daily activities
- If they stop grooming themselves, bathing, etc.
- Going extended periods without eating
Of course, toddlers are not capable of doing the things above. With toddlers, you likely have to weather the storm with them and continue providing comfort and love for as long as necessary. If, as they grow, they seem unable to let the death of a loved one go, they may need to see a counselor.
Some counselors and therapists specialize in helping children and teens of all ages work through issues with grief. Look for a list of child psychologists with the specialty in your area, and let your child know that in no way is counseling a punishment. No matter what, let your child or teen know that you are always there for them.