Supporting Grief and Loss in Childhood
This article appeared on Parent.co
Grief is complex. Most adults struggle to navigate themselves through a painful loss or death, so how do we go about helping our child in this complicated and unwelcome situation?
If you are feeling at a loss for how to help your child through a tough time, you certainly not alone. This is challenging territory for any parent, and you are an amazing parent for digging in to find out how to best support your child during an overwhelming time.
Grief has historically been conceptualized in the form of many stages and phases, which we now know isn’t an accurate portrayal. Grief may, in fact, be one of the most complicated processes humans can experience.
When a child loses somebody or something they love, each will grieve the loss in their own way and on their own time. As helpful as it would be to have a set of universal guidelines for grief, we know this isn’t reality. Each child’s grief is as unique to them as the relationship they had with who or what they’ve lost.
While there is no predictable method of laying out how your child will experience grief, there are many evidenced based practices for supporting your child through the complex journey.
Invite feelings in
Hands down, the number one thing you can do to help your child with a loss is to allow them space to grieve. In order for your child to move forward productively, they first need to work through the complicated emotions that arise with the experience of loss.
If they are not able to release these emotions, they will be at an increased risk for experiencing physical and emotional complications, such as increased risk of anxiety, depression, and immune system impairment.
In addition, we’ve learned from the work of neuroscientist Dr. Dan Siegel that our child’s brain performs at its best when different parts of the brain work together in an integrated way. If your child’s right brain (emotional center) is stressed and highly activated, their left brain (logical thinking a.k.a. school brain) won’t function at its full potential.
What does this tell us? We need to allow our children to feel their feelings. We need to remember that it’s natural and healthy for our children to express difficult emotions such as sadness or anger, and not inadvertently attempt to minimize or distract from these situations.
Manage your own emotion
This one goes hand in hand with allowing space for feelings. When our children experience strong emotions, we do as well. It breaks every parent’s heart to see their child in pain, therefore we often subconsciously make efforts to stifle the expression of said emotions. A few famous ones are “Don’t cry” and “Why don’t you smile?”
If we are fully in tune with our own emotions as parents, we can then take necessary care of ourselves in order to be fully available to our children when they need support navigating difficult emotions. Watching adults model healthy coping strategies for their own emotions serves as a powerful teacher for your child as well.
Provide healthy outlets
So how do we encourage and support our children to express their emotions? Most children won’t have the consistent ability to sit down and have a direct conversation regarding their current feeling state. Not only is this too intense for many children, but the complex skills involved require brain development that is not achieved until our teens and early twenties.
Thankfully, parents can offer countless ways to assist children in working through complicated emotions after a loss, including journaling, art, music, and books. Using these mediums comes easily to children, whose natural language of communication is play. These resources can also be enormously helpful in giving children and parents helpful language to put to their thoughts and feelings.
I am often surprised by children’s lack of emotional vocabulary when they come into my office. Inquiries about how they’re feeling are often met with “good” or “bad,” when, in fact, neither word is technically an emotion.
Providing a feelings vocabulary sheet is a great way to help your child identify more specifically what they’re feeling, as people often experience more than one emotion at a time. The more vocabulary your child has for expressing their emotions, the less likely they’ll need to express their feelings in less appropriate ways (this emotions flashcard set will get you started).
If your child is struggling, seeking outside support from a counselor can aid in your child’s healing through grief. Studies have shown that receiving outside support, such as individual or family therapy, dramatically help a child’s long-term outcome. Some kids will feel more comfortable opening up to a third party (look for a mental health professional that specializes in children) and may be more open to alternative coping strategies coming from an outside source.
Normalize the process of grief
It’s common for a grieving child to feel misunderstood and alone. They may wonder if the strong emotions they’re experiencing are normal and therefore resist voicing them. Minimizing or avoiding emotional expression is often multiplied when adults hesitate to bring up the loss, fearing that it will bring up feelings of discomfort, which in reality, are already present.
It is essential that parents listen more than speak, validate their child’s feelings, and communicate through their actions that all feelings are normal and healthy. Children who feel understood by those around them and are allowed to express their grief in their own unique way will feel higher levels of support and, in turn, adjust and cope better in the long run than they would otherwise.
The behaviors of a grieving child may often be mystifying or frustrating. When children communicate their feelings through behavior, their actions are often undesirable. Children’s responses to grief will likely be inconsistent as they will continue to process and resolve complicated feelings as they move through various stages in life.
Guiding your child through the process of loss and grief is something no parent wants to undertake. But avoiding this guidance out of our own fear or discomfort will come at a great detriment to your child.
It’s inevitable that in a life with love there will be loss. With your support and gentle guidance, your child can learn healthy tools to cope with loss that they can carry with them as they continue to grow and encounter future challenges.
My daughter left her 4 & 8 year old back in November. My 4 y.o. granddaughter was particularly close with her and all three of us(I’m Mimi) did everything together but she was always with her Mom. Now she is acting out terribly and keeps hurting my very delicate 6 lb dog. She pulls her hair, pulls her legs apart, kicks her and hits her with my wood backscratcher. I have told her hundreds of times not to hurt her and why and tried to be patient. Today after she kicked my dog, right in front of me, and my dog screamed in pain, I lost it. Yelling like a maniac, spanked her butt and told her she hadto go home. My bond with my granddaughter is very deep and it wasn’t like this till her Mom abandoned her ( she is a drug addict and see’s her infrequently). I hate myself for not dealing better but truly dont know what I could have done. She hits me, sometimes with objects, screams at me, stomps her feet, and is a horror. I know she is hurting but how can I help her and myself. It seems like everything is wrong now.
So sorry to hear you all are going through so much. When the attachment between mother and child is disrupted, it is very traumatic for a child. Seeing as she is very young, she will not have the internal resources to deal with this on her own and will have many strong emotions she doesn’t know how to deal with. If there is any way to get to into a child counselor for play therapy, this would be of great benefit to her. Hopefully, the counselor can also provide specific feedback on how her family can help to support her during challenging behaviors. Of course you don’t want to stop seeing your sweet granddaughter, so finding a place to put the dog for awhile when she comes over sounds like it would be in everyone’s best interest. She is lucky to have a supportive caregiver like you who is looking out for her best interest.
My daughter passed from a drug overdose and left a 5 and 3 year old. She was a single mom. My husband and I are now their caregivers. When my grandchildren act out I hug them. It calms them right down. I think hugging them and Reassuring them that everything will be OK is what they need.