When a child suffers a loss, adults tend to believe that perhaps they aren’t as affected as they would be if they were older. We’ll often hear phrases like, “Oh, they don’t even understand what’s happening” or “They’re young. They’ll bounce back fast”, when referring to children who’ve experienced some kind of loss in their young life, be it a death, a divorce, or some other tragedy.
But the truth remains that children do indeed experience grief and, oftentimes, it is horrendously debilitating for them. However, because they exhibit grief much differently than adults, the older humans in their lives tend to misread cues and dismiss their feelings.
A little insight, however, will help adults – who are often also dealing with the same loss – learn how to recognize signs of pain so they can help their children through these tough periods.
The basics about children and grief
- It’s important to understand that ALL children can experience grief, no matter their age. Even an infant that suddenly loses a mother or other caregiver will exhibit signs of loss.
- Children do not grieve in the same ways that adults do. This stems mostly from the fact that younger children, especially, do not possess the same tools to express their grief as do the adults in their life.
- A child’s grief is often overlooked or pushed aside, especially when their grief stems from a loss that also affects their adult caregivers or older siblings. This is usually because the adult finds it hard to “take on” additional grief along with their own.
- Experts claim that children “grow up” with grief. This means that they revisit their grief at different stages of development throughout their life. Usually, the older they become, the more they understand the grief, which sometimes causes it to deepen. That’s why parents should always be on the lookout for new signs of grieving.
Losses that cause childhood grief
Many children are fortunate in that they do not experience what we would call a “tragic” loss in their early years, but others do. It’s also important to remember that not all losses involve death. These different kinds of losses, all of which can cause great grief, include the following:
- Death of a parent
- Death of a grandparent
- Death of a sibling or other close family member (cousin, aunt/uncle)
- Death of a playmate or friend
- Death of a beloved pet
- Parental divorce
- A move to another city/town, that requires changes in school or other routines
- A serious, debilitating injury to a caregiver or to the child him/herself
Psychologists warn parents to also look for what they call “hidden losses” that might affect a child. These are not obvious losses like deaths or divorce but sometimes actions that are triggered by those events. For example, a child whose parents split up might suffer a loss of trust or a loss of safety because his/her family is no longer intact.
Children’s grief symptoms
While it’s true that children will cry or become anxious or perhaps lethargic when faced with overwhelming grief, just like adults do, parents should be aware of more subtle changes that aren’t as obvious on the outside.
For example, school-aged children who are grieving might seem okay at home but often experience problems at school. Teachers begin to see grades drop or notice attention issues with the child. Kids may experience a loss of interest and be less likely to participate in play or in extra-curricular activities. Withdrawing from others is also a common symptom of childhood grief.
In addition, experts point out that a child’s grief often seems to come and go. For example, you may see a roller coaster of emotions from day to day or even within the same day. It’s important to recognize this waxing and waning of emotions because when parents see a seemingly happy child, they assume the grief has subsided and sometimes don’t notice the opposite reactions when they occur.
And remember, no child is too young to grieve. Infants and toddlers can become inconsolable upon experiencing loss and preschoolers may become obsessed with talking about the deceased individual or about their parent’s separation. Young children are especially likely to pick up on a caregiver’s grief as well and may mirror that person’s reactions and emotions.
Growing with grief
Because grief tends to hang around, especially in cases of traumatic loss, children can “grow up” with grief and may react differently as their brains develop through the years.
For example, a very young child often does not grasp the finality of death, but when that child grows, that finality becomes more clear and the loss can be reactivated as understanding blossoms. This can trigger new or more symptoms of grief, especially during times of stress.
Handle with care
Children can be forgotten in their grief…and that’s a huge tragedy. This happens most often when others around the child – particularly his or her caregivers – are grieving, too. Parents don’t try to ignore their child’s grief, but it happens fairly often because, in many cases, they can’t handle their own grief and someone else’s as well.
Psychologists suggest involving as many adults as possible in the life of a grieving child. That means telling teachers, counselors, friends from religious institutions, and extended family about the child’s loss and allowing them to watch for signs of distress. The grieving child needs consistent support and encouragement, even during those times when it seems they’re doing okay.
Dr. Ellie Bolgar and staff have decades of experience helping children through the grief process and assisting parents and other caregivers in dealing with children who are suffering due to a loss. For more information on how our compassionate staff can help your child, call us at 604-371-0198 to book an appointment.