Childhood Grief: How to Help Throughout the Years

Grief is an incredibly unique experience. It depends entirely on the person, the loved one they lost, and countless other elements in their life. One of the most impactful elements is their age. Each year brings new awareness, skills, and developmental milestones. Therefore, it stands to reason that age plays a large factor in how we grieve, as the coping mechanisms that might have helped us at infants surely will not be as helpful as we reach adulthood! While there will never be set “rules” when it comes to grief, there are some guidelines you can follow when trying to help the children in your life who are grieving. Keep reading to learn more.

Babies

While many people may feel that babies aren’t aware enough to experience grief, the opposite is true. While they may not be able to express or fully comprehend their emotions, they can sense if someone they’re close to is no longer present. Some commons signs of grief among babies include crying (more than usual), separation anxiety, being jumpy or irritable, or becoming extremely passive.

How to help…

The best thing you can do for babies is keep to your routine. The comfort and stability helps enable feelings of safety and security. Remember that children so young rely heavily on their senses, so surrounding them with cozy blankets, giving lots of hugs, speaking in soothing tones, and smiling are all helpful. Babies are also able to pick up on the tone and mood of their parents, so keeping a calm and loving attitude is important.

Toddlers

Toddlers may exhibit similar signs of grief to babies, but as they grow older their responses may develop to be more complex as well. Older toddlers may grow aggressive or anxious and throw tantrums more often. They may also complain of being ill (having a stomachache or headache). Finally, toddlers may revert to younger behaviors, such as having trouble with toilet training, beginning to crawl again, or asking for bottle.

How to help…

Toddlers are still very driven by their senses, so the coping techniques used for infants could also be used for toddlers. However, at this age it’s also a good idea to help them express how they’re feeling. Simply saying “I am feeling sad” and asking them to identify that emotion is incredibly healthy for them. Verbal reassurances can also help, such as reminding them they are safe and protected. Children this age are just starting to grasp the idea of life and death. If you feel your toddler is ready, you may explain how death works as part of nature, such as leaves falling from the trees. This can introduce them to the idea of death in a gentle way. The key to having these conversations is letting the child lead. Let them ask the questions. Your job is to answer their questions honestly, while providing an age-appropriate explanation.

Elementary Years  

When children reach school-age, they start to gain a better understanding of what death is. They may revert to signs of grief seen in younger age groups, though they may also exhibit more developed grief reactions. Common reactions at this age include being very preoccupied with the safety of others, or with the situation surrounding their loved one’s death. At this point, they are able to sense new feelings of guilt and embarrassment, which may cause them to act out in angry or depressed bursts. Finally, you may notice that they desperately aim to please adults in their life, and seek constant reassurance.

How to help…

The best thing you can do for children this age is spend time with them. Touch base as often as possible and encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling. What they need most is consistent reminders that they are being cared for and that they are safe. While they may feel the need to overcompensate for their age, encouraging them to act their age and participate in age-appropriate activities can help them cope as well. Finally, as children grow closer to their teenage years, being open and honest about your feelings can help them identify and address their own feelings as well. Remember, always let the child lead your conversations. It is up to you to decide how much information they are ready to hear. Whatever you decide to tell them, just remember that honesty is key.

Teenagers

The teen years may be some of the most challenging we experience, whether we experience a loss or otherwise. Teenagers are right between childhood and adulthood – which already comes with a plethora of emotions. Their bodies and minds seem to change every day, so losing a loved one during this time only adds to this stress. Teenagers may express grief in any variety of ways, but some commons signs include extreme emotions of any kind, ignoring their grief by hiding behind jokes, changes to their sleeping or eating patterns, reversion to bedwetting or night terrors, and growing numb or disinterested. In severe cases, teenagers may experience clinical depression or suicidal thoughts.

How to help…

It’s very important that teenagers have the proper support needed to work through their grief. At this age, they have a grounded understanding of what death is and, while they may understand death, this concept may still overwhelm them. Similar to other ages, teenagers need to be reminded that they are being taken care of and are protected. Assuring them that it’s okay to embrace their age and not assume adult roles is helpful, as is encouraging them to spend time with friends and finding creative outlets for their grief, such as journaling, painting, or listening to soothing music. It’s important to check on grieving teenagers often, as their age group holds the highest risk for severe depression, anxiety, or even suicidal thoughts. Because of this risk, many people may seek professional help to assist their teenager through the grief process.

Final Thoughts

Again, always remember that grief is incredibly specific and unique. The signs and coping techniques we’ve listed here are common, but they are not the only way to grieve. The most important thing you can do for the children in your life, no matter what age they are, is to love them fully. Spend time with them, talk with them openly, and remind them that they are loved. If you find yourself in a particularly tough situation, do not be ashamed to seek additional sources of help. Sometimes children may respond best to a different adult. Talking to your priest, a trusted friend, a teacher, or professional counselor may be helpful. Just be patient with them and with yourself as you navigate this challenging time.

Are you interested in learning more about our grief support resources? Click here.

Post written by Katie Karpinski

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