Children and Adolescent Grievers:
No child should have to grieve alone. Most often, adults do not know what to say to a grieving child, especially if those adults are grieving themselves. Children and adolescents grieve and express themselves in different ways than adults. Depending on their developmental level, you might notice that they grieve in bursts. One minute they may be playing with friends and then the next they are experiencing great deal of sadness. Or they may go days, weeks or months without showing any signs of grieving.
Preschool children usually see death as reversible and temporary and are often very curious about death. Preschoolers may see death as something like sleeping, where the person is dead but only in a limited way and may continue to breathe or eat after death. Preschoolers often feel guilty and believe that they are responsible for the death of a loved one,
conceivably believing that because they were “bad” or wished the person would “go away”, they are to blame. Most commonly, preschoolers cannot put their feelings into words and instead react to loss through behaviors such as irritability, aggression, physical symptoms, difficulty sleeping, or regression (such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting).
Children between five and nine begin to think more like adults about death, yet they often have a thought process that it will never happen to them or anyone they know. Children in this age range typically understand that death is final and may think of death as a person or spirit, like a ghost or angel. By the age of 10, children are fully capable of understanding
that death happens to everyone and cannot be avoided. During this age, children are often interested in the specific details of the death and what happens to the body after death. School-aged children may experience a range of emotions including guilt, anger, shame, anxiety, sadness, and worry about their own death. Or may worry about who will take care of them, and will likely experience feelings of insecurity, clinginess and abandonment. School age children often find themselves struggling to talk about their feelings. Their feelings may come out through behaviors such as school avoidance, poor performance in school, physical symptoms, regression to a younger developmental state, withdrawal from friends or engaging in aggression.
Teenagers have a more ‘adult’ understanding of the concept of death but they do not have the experience, coping skills or behaviors of an adult. Often times, teenagers are experiencing a wide range of emotions but are lacking the understanding of how to handle them and may not feel comfortable talking about them. Which may make it more difficult for them to be receptive to supports from adult family members because of their need to be
independent and separate from their parents. Teenagers are more likely to cope by spending more time with friends or by withdrawing from the family to be alone. They may act out in anger at family members or show impulsive or reckless behaviors such as substance use, fighting in school, or sexual promiscuity.
Often times, it can be helpful for adults to get help with talking and helping your child understand grief in simple, direct, honest terms geared to your child’s developmental level. Children are unable to reflect on their thoughts and emotions in the same way adults may be able to. Grief therapy focuses on providing age-appropriate understanding and emotional support.
If you believe your child, tween or teen may be struggling during their grieving process, please reach out!