Supporting Grieving Children
Something about a new teacher, a loaded backpack, and crisp, white notebook paper signals a fresh start. But this isn’t true for all of our kids. The excitement of a new school year may be clouded by mixed emotions, especially still being on the heels of covid.
Many of our children have experienced loss. They may have lost loved ones or their sense of safety. They may have lost the family unit because of divorce or years of social interaction because of isolation. It’s important to know how to support grieving children in each of their losses, even if they are only perceivedlosses.
The grieving process varies by a child’s age, development, and personal experiences. Some children may seem unaffected by loss, while others openly express their feelings.
You can have one family of five children whose parents separated and then divorced. Even though these kids have had the same parents and lived in the same house, the way each of them experienced that life can be vastly different.
The older children may have seen it coming, may have wanted the fighting to stop, and feel a sense of relief. Those kiddos in the middle are watching the older siblings but can’t quite process what’s happening and feel pulled to take sides. Meanwhile, the youngest is still waiting for their mama and daddy to live together again.
Their feelings are all over the spectrum … relief, anger, bitterness, confusion, sadness, hurt, grief, fear, loneliness, and even shame. And they bring that with them onto the school bus and through the doors of every classroom.
The following details will help you understand the difference between normal grief and traumatic grief and when to consider reaching out for help.
What is grief?
Grief is a natural, internal response to the loss of someone or something we care about. In children, grief can feel like a jumbled mix of emotions. They may feel sad and lonely as they miss their loved one and at the same time, angry and frustrated because they just don’t understand why or how something so awful could happen.
Our children need support to cope with grief. Young children may not be able to put complex emotions into words, so those big feelings are stuck in their bodies and minds which can increase feelings of isolation. According to Caitlin Coile, LPC-MHSP, Director of Children and Teens Program at the Refuge Center, the internal experience of a child might include:
- Emotions such as anger, guilt, relief, fear, and sadness
- Thoughts of trying to understand and believe what happened
- Physical responses such as sleeplessness, stomach aches, headaches, and loss of appetite
- Spiritual questioning about life’s meaning and the nature of God
What are the outward signs of grief in children?
Outward signs of grief vary for each person. Common themes in children include expressing mixed feelings, having difficulty concentrating or sleeping, or experiencing outbursts of crying or anger. Additionalnoticeable signs may reveal themselves in these areas:
- Academics – Declining grades, incomplete work, memory loss, overachievement, language errors, inattentiveness, daydreaming
- Behavioral – Noisy outbursts, disruptive behavior, non-compliance, risk-taking, hyperactive-like behavior, isolation, or withdrawal, need for attention
- Social – Withdrawal from friends or activities, drug use, changing relationships, sexually acting out, stealing, difficulty being in groups
- Physical – Stomach aches, headaches, heartaches, accidents, sleep difficulties, loss of appetite, low energy, skin condition, nausea, increased illness, and rapid heartbeat
You may only see kids display a few of these signs, experience signs at different times, or simply feel grief without any noticeable signs. Checking in with your child and looking out for signs of struggle will help you provide the support your child needs to begin healing.
Keep in mind that your kids may not always want to talk to their parents—this can be especially true for teens. They may be more open to sharing their hearts with a coach, teacher, aunt, or uncle. If your kids have a safe person to share with, have a conversation with that person. The point is to have an adult who is positively involved in the grieving process.
How can you support a grieving child?
Parents may choose to talk openly about loss from an early age which helps children understand loss as a part of life. Still, significant loss in childhood can lead to confusion and sadness that lasts for months or even years. Grief support for a child may include:
- Providing a safe environment for active listening
- Trying to understand your child’s experience
- Being available when he or she needs you to be close
- Setting age-appropriate limits on information related to the loss
- Avoiding false hope of replacing what was lost
- Encouraging activities that still bring joy
For children, loss can feel unexpected and intense. Whether they are four or fourteen, our kids may not know what to do with all that is swirling around inside them. There are books and online resources for caregivers to learn how to help children express and work through difficult or confusing emotions.
You should also be aware that all grief is not the same. It’s important for parents to know the signs of traumatic grief.
What is traumatic grief?
Traumatic grief refers to the experience after a highly traumatic loss, such as the death of a parent. Imagine losing the person who has shown you safety, provision, encouragement, and love. Now imagine being a kid who is often too young to fully grasp what is happening.
Bereavement can be traumatic in childhood for so many reasons. Our children may experience more distress if someone close to them dies tragically rather than from natural causes. If significant distress occurs, the loss may lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Post-traumatic stress can play out in symptoms like these:
- Lingering severe sadness and fear
- Acting the event out when playing
- Outbursts of anger and ongoing irritability
- Trouble sleeping
- Triggered by memories of the trauma
- Continually negative feelings
Children who experience collective trauma may also feel traumatic grief. Collective trauma refers to a traumatic event that affects a large number of people, such as a tragedy at school or a pandemic. Parents should watch for signs of difficulty coping, such as bedwetting, nightmares, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.
Since outward symptoms may not be present, it’s important to screen for traumatic grief by asking your child about feelings following a loss. If there are signs of traumatic or complicated grief, parents can assure their children that they are not alone and provide the support needed to heal.
Is my child depressed?
Although grief and depression have similarities, there are key differences. Grief is a natural reaction to a significant loss that usually lasts for about six months or longer if the person is unable to process the loss adequately. Depression is a disorder that causes significant problems with mood, energy, sleep, and appetite and can last for many years.
When should you seek professional help?
While grieving is a healthy response to loss, supporting someone through grief can be difficult. You may have no idea how to help your child on your own. Signs of complicated grief include:
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
- Chronic physical symptoms without medical cause
- Depression with impaired self-esteem
- Persistent denial of the loss
- Alcohol and/or drug use
- Intense feelings of guilt or responsibility
- Major and continued changes in sleeping or eating habits
- Unsafe/harmful risk-taking behavior
Helping your child process their grief now will have a lasting impact on not only them but the people they have relationships with in the future. It can have a tremendous effect on how they handle stress, loss, and other life events in the future. Learning how to untangle thoughts and feelings as a child teaches them not to fear overwhelming emotions and empowers our kids to communicate what is going on inside of them.
If you think your child is experiencing traumatic or complicated grief, you might consider seeking professional help. At the Refuge Center, we offer many resources to help adults and children walk toward healing.
And don’t forget to register for Live Intentionally 2022. The topic this year is EQUIP: The Tools You Need to Address the Teen and Mental Health Crisis. Subject such a childhood grief and loss will be presented.
Blog written by Masters Level Intern, Lindrel Moates and edited by Shelby Renee Rawson