Grief is personal and affects everyone differently. For the child and adolescent population, grief is often complex to identify. Common symptoms include sadness, anger, numbness, irritability, defiance, mood irregularity, depression and anxiety.
For parents, the first step in helping your child overcome grief is recognizing that all behavior is purposeful. Studies indicate that the part of the brain associated with emotional regulation is not fully developed until early adulthood. Therefore, children experience, process, and respond to emotions differently.
Working Through the Emotions
After suffering the loss of a loved one, parents often observe dramatic changes in their child’s mood and behavior. The emotions your child is experiencing could be expressed in a multitude of ways. They may feel intense sadness and cry, become angry and defiant, struggle with sleep (nightmares, bedwetting), and regress in development (baby talk, separation anxiety). During this time period, the child will often experience incongruency in mood and behavior. It’s a continuous series of highs and lows that can make parents feel as if they are on a non-stop rollercoaster of emotions. Though frustrating, the inconsistencies in your child’s behavior and emotion is their way of attempting to cope and regulate their feelings.
Positive Coping Mechanisms
Even the most verbal child can struggle with articulating their emotions with words. Offering age appropriate alternatives for emotional expression can be very beneficial for your child. Reading with your child can be very healing. Books such as, The Invisible String, I Miss You, and The Memory Box are wonderful books on grief and loss. Another great way of to cope is to allow your child to draw, write, or craft their emotions, which promotes expression using a multisensory approach. Creating rituals that allow for open dialogue centered around grief can also be healing for children. Activities such as planting a tree, releasing balloons, creating photo albums, or carving out special time to bring flowers, letters, or gifts to the burial site can help create space for your child to ask questions and express how they are feeling.
Make New Holiday Traditions
Struggling with grief during the holiday season can be especially difficult. Events such as thanksgiving dinner or gathering around the tree can trigger painful reminders that the loved one is no longer with them. Giving yourself and your family permission to disengage from holiday events, previous holiday traditions, and holiday commitments is important. Acknowledging the missing loved one can normalize emotions and give the child permission to feel and express their emotions. If you are celebrating the holidays, try building a new holiday ritual around the loved one by releasing a balloon, lighting a candle, or crafting or hanging a special ornament.
Counseling Can Help
If you are concerned your child may be struggling, it is important to seek outside help. Counseling can be a safe place for children to express their emotions and process their reactions to the death. During individual and family counseling, a therapist will help your child and family learn healthy ways to process emotions and build healthy coping skills. Grief is the most universal experience; having a safe place for parents and children to express their emotions can create togetherness and healing.