The unfortunate loss of a family member, pet or friend will leave both adults and children mourning. Sometimes other changes – like moving to a new town or changing schools – can feel like a significant loss to a child. Just as adults can grieve the loss of “what used to be,” children also grieve.
While children may experience the same phases of grief that adults typically do (shock/denial, pain/guilt, anger/bargaining, and depression/sadness), they often have difficulty knowing how to cope with their sadness, confusion and anger. Parents may see grieving children:
- become more emotionally and behaviorally challenging at home and at school
- become defiant, irritable or aggressive toward peers and siblings
- have difficulty concentrating in the classroom or feeling motivated to do their schoolwork
- have increased emotional outbursts, worries, fears, separation anxiety or regressive behaviors.
Providing a positive, supportive relationship with a grieving child will help them to express their grief. Parents can support their child’s emotional expression by:
- Ask direct open-ended questions (“How are feeling about grandpa’s death?”). Model emotion expression (“I am feeling sad about grandpa’s death today. I wonder how you are feeling?”). This communication helps children know that upset emotions can be tolerated.
- Encourage children to ask their questions about the loss. Answering these questions with concrete language (“He died” vs. “He passed away”) will help minimize a child’s misconceptions about the loss.
- Support a child’s need to maintain a connection to the missed person, place or pet by often speaking of them.
- Empower children to choose how to honor the loss (e.g, creating keepsakes of the loved one or remembering birthdays).
- Consider local grief support groups to help connect your child with peers who have also experienced loss.
- Enlist the help of a mental health professional to help treat prolonged, significant grief.
Thankfully, children are resilient and can heal from loss, with consistent support.
NOTE: This information should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of a mental health condition. Call 612-871-1454 to learn more about Washburn Center’s mental health services for children.