Helping Children Cope with Grief & Loss
Parents and caregivers cannot protect their children from the pain of loss; it is a hard reality of life. Friends move, parents divorce, family members and pets die, and as a result, children lose something important to them. Losing things we love – things we find comfort and security in – is hard. Grief is a normal emotional reaction to loss. Children may experience a broad range of emotions including sadness, anger, anxiety, fear, or guilt as part of the grief process.
Feelings of grief are similar for adults and children, but the outward expression of grief may look different. Although it may vary by age or developmental level, children frequently express grief through their behavior because they may not have the ability to verbalize or articulate their feelings. Common observable grief reactions in children may include crying more frequently or easily, having trouble sleeping, acting aggressively toward siblings or friends, acting younger than they are, or engaging in repetitive talk or play related to the loss. Research suggests that boys are more likely than girls to display grief through anger expression, aggression, or bullying, while girls display grief more internally such as social withdrawal, anxiety, depression, or bodily aches or pains.
Protecting children from loss is impossible. Just as parents teach their children to say their first words and ride a bike, parents teach their children how to grieve. A significant amount of research demonstrates that parents (and other primary caregivers or significant adults) play a critical role in helping children “bounce back” from grief and loss.
Dr. Robin Goodman, an expert on childhood grief has outlined eight tasks essential for children facing grief and loss. Dr. Goodman suggests that children must: 1) accept the permanence of the loss; 2) experience the emotional pain and cope with it; 3) adjust to environmental changes resulting from the loss; 4) participate in new activities; 5) create new, or deepen existing, relationships to offset the loss; 6) maintain the bond with the lost relationship by reminiscing, remembering or memorializing; 7) making meaning or sense of the loss; and 8) continue typical development.
Parents and caregivers can help children move through the tasks of grief by focusing on ways to enhance caring and structure within their relationships. Consider the following tips:
- Let children know it is okay to feel and show their feelings. Children need to know that grieving is acceptable. Create an opportunity for your child to express grief. Continue to talk about the loved one who died (or moved) or reminisce about experiences before the loss.
- Show and label feelings. Express your grief and explain your feelings as a way to help children understand their own grief. Although children should be protected from exceptionally strong grief reactions, do not hide your normal and natural emotions from children. Explain to children that adults feel “just like you feel sometimes.”
- Set limits. Children need the security of knowing the rules and boundaries of behavior. Without rules and boundaries, we are all lost. Children facing change due to loss find security in knowing the expectations within their environment.
- Establish and maintain routine. Continuity and predictability can be a safety net for grieving children. Attending school daily, doing regular chores, and attending weekly events and activities provide children with a sense of security and stability amidst the changes that often accompany loss.
- Remember, grief is an ongoing process, not an event. Research has shown that grief may be longer and more drawn out for children, and rarely is the grief journey a straight path. The grief may fade and then reemerge as the child confronts new thoughts, feelings, challenges, and even new losses across life.
Grief is not an illness; most children do not experience serious problems. Nevertheless, research suggests that 1 in 5 bereaved children will experience disturbance or distress at a level that justifies referral for specialized services. Professional help may be needed if signs of grief such as sleep disturbances, declines in school performance or prolonged or excessive distress or anxiety prevent or limit a child’s normal daily functioning. A qualified mental health professional (e.g., marriage and family therapist, art therapist, play therapist, licensed professional counselor, clinical social worker) can provide age-appropriate guidance to help your child and your family through the grieving process.
This Evidence-Based Parenting article was supported by the Center for Family Resilience at Oklahoma State University and the generous support of the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Questions about this article should be directed to Dr. Kami Schwerdtfeger at firstname.lastname@example.org or (405)744-8351.