children and grief

Children and Grief: It doesn’t always look like you’d think

No matter what our age, grieving is a process. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and the process looks different for every individual. But for children, grief can look very different than the grief of an adult. Children are still learning to understand, identify, and regulate their emotions. When a child is faced with loss and/or trauma, they may need a little extra support as they process their “new normal.” 

Research shows that children grieve differently than adults.

Children’s minds process information differently than adults do, so it makes perfect sense that grief would also manifest differently in young minds.

‘”Kids often grieve in spurts because they can’t seem to tolerate grief for long periods of time,” says Susan Thomas, LCSW-R, FT, program director for the Center for H.O.P.E. at Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center of New York. Adults, she explains, “have one foot in grief and one foot on the outside, but kids jump in and out of grief.” A child may seem deep in their sadness one minute, and then be happily playing with toys the next. Children may give the appearance of coping well, when suddenly a seemingly innocuous event unrelated to the loss triggers a disproportionate response.” For example, says Thomas, “A child may scrape her knee and say, ‘I wish Daddy were here. If he were here this wouldn’t have happened.’ Children can compartmentalize their grief in ways many adults cannot, but it does not mean that their feelings are any less real. Kids are masters at being able to distract themselves and focus on other things, but when something happens, all of the emotion they’ve been pushing away comes back.” This coping mechanism, Thomas says, allows them to “handle the intensity of the experience.”’ -Kate Jackson, Social Work Today

Children need rituals too.

While an adult’s instinct may be to try to shield children from the reality of death and the funeral rituals it often entails, that is simply not the case. Rituals can help children process loss too. 

“Allow children to participate in the rituals of saying good-bye. Funerals are for the whole family. Children should be given the choice of whether they attend services after they have been given very clear, detailed descriptions of what to expect. Children who are not allowed to go to funerals will wonder what was so horrible that they couldn’t see it, or will get the message that they are not important enough, or competent enough to be included.” -Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

However, children shouldn’t be forced to attend or participate in rituals that make them feel uncomfortable. Providing them with an “out,” such as a trusted adult to take them elsewhere if they feel like they need to step out to leave, can be helpful. 

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Know when to get extra help.

When it comes to older children and teens, Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt shares, “Any kind of extreme behavior is an obvious red flag. These behaviors include:

  • Suicide threats
  • Serious destructive acts toward people, property, or animals
  • Frequent episodes of panic
  • Drug or alcohol use

Other changes that probably warrant evaluation are an inability or unwillingness to socialize, a significant decline in schoolwork, or continued denial (in words or behavior) that the death happened.”

For most children who have suffered a loss, it’s a good idea to have them speak to a compassionate grief counselor. It can only benefit them to have an expanded support system during this challenging time. If you are looking for more resources for grieving kids, please reach out anytime. We would be honored to assist you.