For adults and children alike, grieving is an important part of accepting that a loved one has died or parents are separating or divorcing, dealing with difficult feelings, and saying goodbye. For kids, having a caring adult who will guide them through this process can create an opportunity for growth and transformation. It can build your relationship with your children, making it stronger in the end. It helps your children to see how you handle grief so don’t hide your emotions and make sure they know no matter what you will be there for them.
So what can you do to prepare your children for this grief, well what you can’t unfortunately do is take it from them, we would all love to do this for our children, but you can prepare yourself by understanding how children process grief and know how different age groups handle grief. (I’ve also listed some helpful tips to help your child at the end of the blog post so if you want to skip ahead.)
The Four Stages of Grief in Children Include:
- Shock and Numbness
It doesn’t matter what has caused this grief in your child he or she is likely to be stunned at first, although they may appear to be functioning okay. Beneath the surface, they are just beginning to cope with the loss and for this reason, your child’s ability to think clearly and concentrate may be impaired. You can help by:
- Being patient and give them your time and be willing to listening
- Giving your child space to think, don’t bombard them either
- Making yourself available when your child is ready to talk be prepared to repeat yourself as you may have to explain the situation repeatedly while they take it all in.
2. Yearning and Searching
During this stage, your child may appear restless, angry, or bewildered; or express feelings of guilt over the loss. These are intense and unresolved feelings and may result in the child acting out toward others, or completely withdrawing. You can help by:
- Allowing your child to express his or her feelings and be willing to listen. Don’t engage in shouting matches.
- Realizing that your child’s feelings may change drastically from day-to-day and during the day too.
- Remaining calm and patient with them
3.Disorientation and Disorganization
- Making sure your child gets adequate nutrition and rest and keep a normal family routine.
- Continuing to be available to your child to listen and comfort.
- Providing opportunities to spend time outside together as a family. This will help when they don’t want to do their normal activities.
Your child begins to accept the loss and you may notice that your child seems less sad, has more energy and is able to think more clearly. You can help by:
- Realizing that your child may fluctuate back into previously experienced stages of grief and this is normal but if you feel your child isn’t progressing please talk to your GP.
- Remaining alert to any changes in your child’s behaviour or mental state, never accept bad behaviour just because your child is grieving.
- Continue to encourage your child to share his or her feelings and offer comfort, sometimes even teens need to revert back to a younger age when it comes to comfort.
Understanding how children and teens view death
This is helpful to understand as it varies by age and often changes as a child develops emotionally and socially. Other factors influence children’s reactions as well such: personality, previous experiences with death, and how much support from family members they receive. Keep in mind that children do not move from one stage of development to the next in a linear manner and various ages will overlap.
Infants (birth to 2 years)
- Have no understanding of death, separation or divorce. They will be however affected by your emotions as you grieve.
- But are aware of separation from the main caregiver and will grieve the absence of a parent or caregiver
- They may react to the absence of a parent or caregiver with increased crying, decreased responsiveness, and changes in eating or sleeping. And may look for that parent or caregiver.
Preschool-age children (3 to 6 years)
- Are curious about death and believe it is temporary or reversible, so will expect the person to return at some stage.
- May see death as something like sleeping, so may think that the person carries on a life away from them with work, sleeping, eating continuing elsewhere.
- The child may often feel guilty and/or believe that they are responsible for the death, separation or divorce in some way. They may think if only I was good the parent or caregiver will return.
- The child will worry about who will take care of them and about being left behind if something should happen to other caregivers or parent.
- Are very affected by the grief of parents and family members.
- Remember children of this stage cannot put their feelings into words and instead react to loss through behaviours such as irritability, aggression, physical symptoms, difficulty sleeping, or regression (such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking) – this can happen at any age so don’t be surprised to see bed-wetting in older children.
School-age children (6 to 12 years)
- Children at this age understand that death is final and may think of the person as a spirit, ghost, angel, or a skeleton.
- By age 10, roughly, understands that death happens to everyone and cannot be avoided and are often interested in the specific details of death and what happens to the body after death. But don’t force any of this information onto them allow them to ask questions.
- The child may experience a range of emotions including guilt, anger, shame, anxiety, sadness, and worry about their own death.
- They may also struggle to talk about their feelings, so their feelings may be expressed through behaviours such as school avoidance, poor performance in school and at sports and hobbies, aggression, physical symptoms, withdrawal from friends, and regression into an early childhood stage.
- They will worry about who will take care of them, and will likely experience feelings of insecurity, clinginess, and abandonment.
- They may also worry that they are to blame for the death, separation or divorce and wonder if they were good enough the parent or caregiver would come back.
Teenagers (13 to 18 years)
- Have an adult understanding of the concept of death, separation and divorce, but do not have the experiences, coping skills, or behaviours of an adult to cope with everything that is happening.
- They may act out in anger at family members or show impulsive or reckless behaviours, such as substance use, fighting in school, and sexual promiscuity, school absence, poor performance, aggression, withdrawal from family and friends and also a regression onto an early childhood stage.
- May experience a wide range of emotions but don’t know how to handle them nor may they feel they are comfortable talking about them.
- May question their faith and/or their understanding of the world – although most teens start to do this anyway. So be prepared for some big questions.
- They may not be receptive to support from other adult family members because of their need to be independent and separate from parents is also at play at this stage anyway.
- They may cope by spending more time with friends/peers or start spending time with peers you don’t approve of and may withdraw from the family to be alone.
Remember if at any stage you are worried about your child please speak to your GP, they can refer you to other services.
Summary of how to help your child with grief
- Be honest with your child about what is going on and about your own emotions.
- Use age-appropriate language to help your child understand what is happening.
- Always offer your child a listening ear and comfort when they come to you.
- Keep an eye on them and observe behaviour – if concerned ask for help. See you GP as they can refer you to other services.
- Keep up routines, even when it’s hard on you.They need structure at this stage.
- Accept kids emotions, even when it’s hard to deal with, and yes it can be very hard at times to deal with these, and offer comfort and support. Remind them it isn’t their fault any of this is happening.
- Be open about your own emotions, it’s okay to do so and never hide them from your kids it will only make them worried about you more.
- Involve them in the ceremony or a ritual afterwards. Tell them what to expect during the funeral or from changes occurring as a result of separation or divorce.
- Give them time to heal, just like with adults, it isn’t going to happen overnight.
- Monitor media coverage if what has happened is on the news or watch what is placed on social media – adults post without thinking of children sometimes.
We offer counselling services for adults, if you are experiencing a loss we can help. Please call 089 4373641 for an appointment today.
Our book the Building Blocks of Self Care is now available it comes with a free course why not check it out today.
Other posts you might like:
Divorce: An Emotional Rollercoaster – one about adults