Child Grief Counseling for Grief and Loss in Children and Adolescents
Children can experience many losses including death, divorce, moving, parental job loss, parental military deployment, breakups, changes in friendships, school transitions, birth of a sibling, or even natural disasters. Caregivers may feel a struggle to be honest with their child, while wanting to protect them from pain. Caregivers and parents can be supported to encourage their child to express their feelings, give them a safe space to ask questions, and help them to develop healthy coping skills for the future. This can be particularly challenging for parents who are simultaneously processing their own grief.
How do children experience grief?
Children will grieve the loss of a loved one differently depending on age, the type of loss they experienced, the amount of support they may have, and if they have had earlier experiences of loss. They may exhibit behavioral responses rather than talking about their grief the way a mature adult might. Trained therapists can help guide children and caregivers in these areas. Some developmental expectations when it comes to childhood grief are listed below.
- Children ages 0-4: When experiencing a loss, babies and toddlers may become anxious around strangers, become anxious when separated from their immediate caregivers, withdraw from once pleasant activities or toys, and could possibly regress to previous milestones.
- Children ages 5-12: When children are school aged, they start to have a better understanding of death and loss; they may have experienced it themselves or have seen a friend at school go through loss. Children experiencing loss at this age may experience more behavioral problems such as aggression or tantrums, may not want to go to school, have changes in appetite or their sleep schedule, withdraw from once pleasant activities, or may try to take on adult responsibilities to make the adults in their lives happier. Recognizing these as reactions to loss can be key in helping children to process grief in a healthy way.
- Children ages 13+: Children at this age are going through a developmental stage where they want to assert their independence. This can make it harder for them to ask for help from family during the grieving process. Children who are thirteen years old and older may exhibit behaviors such as isolation, trouble staying focused, changes in appetite, changes in sleep schedule, participation in risk-taking behaviors, decreases in self-confidence, and other symptoms of depression. If your teen is presenting in these ways, grief-focused therapy might be recommended.
How can caregivers help?
Adults may have a hard time talking about loss themselves which can make explaining it to a child even harder. Adults who can explore and learn from their own loss are often better able to help support children when they experience loss or a death. A caring adult in the child’s life can be supported to best provide the space for children to discuss loss, explain what has happened, and allow the child to ask any questions they may have. Let children know that their feelings are valid. While the child may be exhibiting inappropriate or frustrating behaviors; it is best if an adult is able to express an understanding of these complex emotions and to approach them with warmth and without judgement. If you are having trouble supporting a child through change and loss and are concerned about their behaviors, therapists can help you to comfort a grieving child.