During this pandemic, it seems that everyone has had their fair share of grief. Whether that’s because of the loss of a family member or something a bit more minor like being isolated for a long period of time or not being able to see family and friends—grief will follow.
Grief is difficult for anyone to deal with—and for kids, it can be especially complicated. Little ones may not always know how to express their emotions, let alone handle them. As parents, what do you do? What should you look out for?
First, know that your child’s response to grief depends on age, personality and family dynamics. D’Anna Sims—a licensed professional counselor with Monkey Mouths—says generally, “play is [children’s] language and toys are their words. This is how they manage their emotions. It is important to remember that they will take some of our words literally.”
Kerri Newman, licensed marriage and family therapist with Journey of Hope, reminds parents that each child’s grief will be unique, even within sibling groups. “Parents often feel helpless [when they] see their children in pain, so it is helpful for parents to understand that most expressions of grief are normal.”
Newman says there are universal experiences in grief: anger, sadness, loneliness, worry, fear and guilt. “Many children fear that others will die or are concerned about their own mortality,” she notes. “Some will withhold sharing to avoid making the parent or caregiver sad. They feel different with their peers and feel like people don’t understand them.”
Whatever emotions your child is demonstrating, here’s how to talk to them and help them process what they’re feeling.
THE LITTLE ONES
Very young children (ages 2–5) experience grief, but they don’t fully understand that death is permanent. Newman notes that children are “concrete thinkers,” so it is important to use direct terms. If someone has died, parents should use terms like death, dying and dead when talking about why that person is not coming home. If we say someone is “gone,” young children might interpret that to mean the person is on a trip. If we say a person is “lost,” the child might think someone should look for them. Sims notes that kids at this age will have some sense of withdrawal due to the separation because they interpret the situation as being temporary.
Newman says children feel others’ moods and sadness, and thus will respond through their own words and emotions to the changes in the environment. “Their grief can be seen in spurts during play, behavior regression, or through big emotions during transitions.”
SCHOOL AGE (6–11)
At this age, Sims says kids may have curiosity about death, such as asking what happens to the body. “They may think death happens to other people but not [them], and they may have fearful or ‘magical thinking.’ They may ask questions such as, ‘Did I cause this?’ or ‘Am I being punished for something I did?’”
Children in this age range can also still struggle with understanding what death means. Newman suggests that parents continue to use clear and definite language when discussing death.
HELPING YOUR CHILD COPE
Regardless of what the child is grieving, Newman says the best way for parents to help their children feel better is to model “healthy emotional grief feelings.”
“Normalize that all feelings are OK, and allow children to feel without trying to fix them,” she says. “Across all ages, parents may see regressive behaviors and difficulty concentrating on tasks, particularly at school.”
If the child’s grief has to do with the pandemic specifically, Sims suggests that parents approach the topic openly and honestly. She suggests providing an outlet for kids beyond asking them to use their words. “It could be helpful to give them a way to process emotions by drawing or writing,” she says.
Nonverbal communication is also comforting, says Newman, so parents can help their child with hugs, back rubs, or even just nodding their head so the child sees that they are heard and understood.
Many children might be feeling a sense of lost safety and security during a season of grief. So Newman says parents can help children by reassuring them that they will keep them as safe as possible. “As families are beginning to develop new routines, new events can suddenly force families to reestablish routines, so ask children their fears and frustrations.”
Sometimes, just listening or being there to answer their questions is enough. “Children need a safe place or person to be with, where they can express their grief through words and play and ask questions,” notes Sims.
And don’t let your own discomfort prevent you from addressing grief you’re your child. Newman encourages parents to challenge and explore their own fears and resistance to tough topics. “Avoidance of topics and bringing up distractions rather than discussing root causes of issues may bring temporary peace, but it can make things worse. It’s helpful for parents to ask themselves how they want to parent and what are the ways they can foster healthy communication and develop new coping skills as a family.”
Ultimately, Newman says that when parents are grounded in their values, they will then feel empowered to have tough conversations.
Finally, take some time to simply observe what’s happening with your child. Take note if your child is showing any of the following significant changes in behavior: a decrease or increase in appetite, lack of motivation, a persistently depressed mood, lack of interest in activities, changes in sleep patterns, decreased self-esteem, difficulty concentrating, moving more slowly than usual or being unusually restless, or suicidal thoughts or self-harm. “If any of these symptoms are present consistently, with a depressed mood over a two-week time frame, they would benefit from consulting with a professional,” suggests Sims.
Image courtesy of iStock.