Helping a child process the loss of a loved one is never easy, particularly when you’re in the midst of dealing with your own grief. But when that child is a preschooler? It can be an even bigger challenge. How do you help a child grieve when they can’t effectively articulate their feelings yet? Here are a few important factors to consider.
Young children don’t show their grief the same way adults do.
Babies and toddlers need extra love and a sense of security, as they often feel scared or carry a sense of anxiety when they see their parents grieving.
“At this young age, babies and toddlers don’t have an understanding of death nor the language to say how they are feeling. However, they can definitely experience feelings of loss and separation, and are likely to pick up on the anxiety or distress of close adults or others around them. They understand separation though, and feel insecure and frightened when the familiar things around them change. This age group needs a lot of reassurance that they will be safe and looked after.”
-The Pediatric Society of New Zealand (PSNZ)
A baby or toddler who has lost someone close to them may be irritable, cry more easily, be clingy, become quiet and less responsive, show signs of anxiety and fretfulness, and even lose weight. Young children will need a great deal of consistency, routine, security, and affection as they process their grief. They need their caregivers to be extra calm, gentle, and to provide even more comfort than usual.
Play is healing.
Children, especially very young children, learn and process their emotions through play. Encouraging open-ended play, such as puppets, dolls, drawing, painting, and sensory play can be incredibly helpful during the child’s grieving and healing process. Playing with peers can also be very beneficial during this time. Young children need to keep a routine that’s as similar as possible to “normal,” including playdates and fun outings.
Be honest with children about hard topics.
Young children can handle the truth, even when it seems painful. Being honest with them can be part of their ultimate long-term healing.
“Always tell the truth. Explain what happened and why, using simple direct language. Use the correct words: people die, are dead, etc. Be sure to provide some information on why the death happened or children may fill in any blanks with creative and incorrect connections. Children without facts are more likely to blame themselves for causing or contributing to the death.”
-St. Joseph Health Hospice
Don’t be afraid to seek help.
Don’t wait to get help if you feel like your grieving child needs additional support. Many children find healing through counseling sessions, sometimes play therapy, and other times in group family sessions. Contact Tharp Funeral Home & Crematory for information on local resources that are ready and waiting to help your family.