Grief is complex. Most adults struggle to navigate themselves through painful loss or death, so how do we go about helping our child in this complicated situation?
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 laying out how your child will experience grief, there are many evidenced based practices for supporting your child through the complex journey.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.