Some of them will develop few symptoms following the death of a loved one; while others will face prolonged symptoms. Everyone has their own unique grieving process. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and the time it takes can vary. It is important for parents to note that all children grieve, regardless of their age.
What is Grief?
Grief is a normal response to loss, trauma and change. For instance, children and teenagers can experience grief following the death of a family member or friend, the end of a friendship, the death of a family pet, or the loss of independence through disability or a chronic condition like Type 1 Diabetes.
What are the signs of Grief in Childhood?
While adults may be better able to express their grief through words, children may show signs of their grief through any of the following behaviours:
- Crying at unexpected times (sadness);
- Over reacting to situations;
- Difficulties in concentrating;
- Low self-esteem;
- Being angry at everything and everyone.
- Eating – a lot (comfort eating), or not much (loss of appetite);
- Difficulties with sleeping – eg too much or too little;
- Children regressing;
- Aggressive behaviour;
It is important to help children develop their resilience and learn how to better cope with pain. Not talking about death and treating it with silence may well increase the child’s level of incomprehension, isolation and stress.
The Impact of Grief at different stages
During a recent professional development opportunity I attended, Lowenstein (2015) explained the different stages of grief in childhood.
For children from birth to age 4, death is mostly experienced as abandonment. For children aged between 5 and 12, death is experienced as temporary with magical thinking. Children this age find it difficult to imagine that the person will not come back; the finality of death is difficult to understand.
For adolescents aged 13 to 18, death is seen as inevitable (everybody is going to die one day), and irreversible (there is no coming back from death).
Everybody grieves differently but for some children grieving may be more complicated. According to Worden (1996), factors that may exacerbate grief symptoms include:
- Sudden death, suicide, homicide;
- Death of mother for girls before early adolescence;
- Death of father for boys before early adolescence;
- Inadequate preparation for funeral;
- Pre-existing psychological difficulties;
- Lack of family or community support;
- Poor family communication and problem solving.
What parents can do
Here are some suggestions for parents to support their child through the grief process:
- Parents can provide a safe environment where the child will feel safe to express their feelings.
- Be honest and provide answers adapted to your child’s developmental age.
- Prepare yourself and be truthful.
- Do not add any other stress to your child’s life and try to stick to the routine as much as possible.
- Show your child that sadness is normal, by allowing yourself to express your own emotions.
- Get support for yourself (grief counselling).
- Be there to listen.
- Be available.
Remember that “when children are told the details of the death in a planned and appropriate way, it provides them with the opportunity to process their feelings and answer their questions” (Lowenstein, 2015).
If your child or teenager is grieving and you feel they would benefit from some psychological support, please feel free to make an appointment with me. I am experienced in working with grieving families, through individual counselling and group counselling. I worked as a grief counsellor in the past and have attended professional development in order to intervene specifically with bereaved children and families.
Author: Meggy Delaunay, PG Dip Psych Practice, PG Dip Dev Psych, M Genetic Psych, B Psych, MAPS.
Meggy Delaunay is a psychologist who primarily works with children, adolescents and young adults. She is a registered Psychologist in Australia, New Zealand and France, and can provide therapy sessions in English and French.
Please call 1800 877 924 to make an appointment or book online with Meggy Delaunay now!
Here are some books, references and websites that you may find interesting.
- Brown, L.K. & Brown, M. (1998). When dinosaurs die: A guide to understanding death. Little, Brown books for young readers, Reprint Edition.
- Grollman, E.A. (2011). Talking about death: A dialogue between parent and child. Beacon Press, 4th edition.
- Haine, R.A., Ayers, T.S., Sandler, I.N. & Wolchik, S.A. (2008). Evidence-based practices for parentally bereaved children and their families. Prof Psychol Res, 39 (2): 113-121.
- Lowenstein, L. (2015). Professional development “Creative interventions for bereaved children and children of divorce”. Brisbane.
- Worden, W. (1996). Children and grief. New York: Guilford.