Added by Katie Lepi, on Edudemic
Children react to grief in different ways depending on their developmental stage, the strength of the support they experience, and the kind of loss to which they are subjected. Understanding what your children or your students are going through based on their developmental stage is important to help them continue on in the classroom and in life.
Death is the most dramatic kind of loss; the impact can vary in its intensity depending on whether the death was that of a parent or primary caretaker, a sibling, another family member, a murder or suicide, a wartime casualty, a pet, or the death of a friend or classmate. Other losses that may result in childhood grief include long military deployments of one or both parents, divorce, mass killings, and a change of residence.
Adult grief has been studied extensively, and has resulted in descriptions of the “stages of grief,” usually delineated as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Individual adults experience these stages in complicated and unique ways. It is clear that there is no one standard way of dealing with grief. However, the framework of adult grief is well understood by mental health providers and a variety of individual, group and self-help resources have been developed. Children facing grief have different challenges than adults. Here are some pointers for helping young children deal with grief.
Infancy to Age 2
Children at this early age are clearly affected by a separation, temporary or permanent, from their primary caretaker(s). These small victims are likely to show increased distress and fussiness, as well as disruptions in previously established patterns of sleeping and eating. If possible, a permanent replacement of caretaker should be established immediately to reestablish the child’s sense of stability.
Preschoolers face unique challenges in dealing with grief due to their cognitive and emotional stages. Children at this age lack the ability to understand the concept of permanence. They may see the death of a loved one as temporary. Comments by well-meaning adults such as “Grandma is just sleeping,” or “Daddy will come back soon” may simply prolong the child’s difficulty in understanding the permanence of death.
Children in this age group are likely to regress to earlier behaviors such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting. Situations like long or repeated military deployments are especially confusing to children in this age group, since their ability to understand temporal issues is so limited. Children at this early age need comfort and consistency. They need to feel that their basic needs are being met. They also will benefit from clear and concrete language about what has happened.
Children in this age group usually possess the ability to understand that death is permanent. Any underlying mental health issues are likely to be exacerbated by the loss and they may have fears about their own future safety or security. For a very young child, the most appropriate source of support is the family, but family members are often reeling from the same set of circumstances that have affected the child. Community support from teachers, neighbors, churches, or more-distant family members may be very useful at this age.
Guidelines for Helpers
Working with traumatized children can be very hard on the helpers; those who wish to help children survive their grief must also stay attuned to their own experience of secondary grief or trauma. One of the best things a concerned adult can do for a grieving child is to express his or her own emotions in a constructive way, so that children can understand that feeling grief and being sad are normal parts of everyone’s life.
Some useful resources for concerned family members or friends can be found at:
About the Author:
Nancy Heath holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and Family Studies and works as Program Director for the Child and Family Development program at American Public University. She is a licensed Marriage and Family therapist, and a Disaster Mental Health volunteer for the Red Cross.
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