Unfortunately most children will experience grief and loss before entering into adulthood. Some forms of loss that a child could experience include divorce, death in the family, pet loss, moving, and bullying. As parents, teachers, caregivers, and adults, it is our responsibility to be aware of the signs, emotions, and reactions a child may exhibit in response to grief. This blog will provide indicators that a child may be grieving and provide a set of questions you can ask the child to help them express their emotions.
Mood Changes: Every child and individual will grieve and express their emotions in their own unique way. There is no “right or wrong” way to grieve or show your emotions. Additionally, not everyone will have the same responses and emotional expressions at the time of a loss. With that said, adults should be prepared to acknowledge a variety of emotions the child may express and understand that all feelings are a normal and natural response to grief. It is normal to have some good days and some bad days. Additionally, a child may have sudden or postponed mood changes depending on certain triggers or situations they are in. Although this is a normal occurrence with loss, it is a sign that the child could be grieving and may be seeking support.
Changes in Sleep Patterns: Similar to adults, after a loss or a life change a child may have sleep disturbances. Children could either spend too much time sleeping, be in and out of sleep, or not be sleeping at all. If you notice a child is having sleep disturbances you can ask them questions such as “What are you thinking about”, “Why do you want to stay in bed all day?” These open ended questions allow for conversation where the child can begin to share what is causing their sleep disturbances. Having an open and honest conversation with your child creates a safe and secure place to express their emotions without judgment or criticism. If your child is having difficulties falling asleep, a tool you can use is the “headspace app for kids” which offers meditation strategies that helps young children fall asleep.
Changes in Normal Activities: Children are usually involved in recreational activities, enjoy spending time with friends, being with family, and engaging in free play. If you notice your child is no longer enjoying or wanting to participate in activities they used to have pleasure in then it would be important to investigate why. Let’s use the example of Emily. Emily is 11 years old and enjoys going to dance on Tuesdays and Thursdays, likes to spend time with her best friend Emma, and playing soccer with her dad on Saturdays is the highlight of her week. After the sudden passing of her family dog she no long wanted to play soccer with her dad on Saturdays. Her dad became worried and decided to ask Emily “Why don’t you like to play soccer on Saturdays?” Emily responded by saying “I just don’t.” Dad replied and said “Well I am always here if you want to play.” A few hours later Emily came up to her dad and explained that she didn’t want to play soccer because her dog Lola was unable to join them and it made her sad. Dad patiently listened to Emily cry and explain how she was feeling and told her that when she felt ready they could play soccer again. Letting your child know that you are available when they are willing to communicate is important. Although some signs could be subtle, it is essential we are attuned and aware of the individual changes that could stem from grief.
Isolation: One of the myths about grief and loss is “Grieve Alone”. You may be wondering why this is a myth? Children and individuals may isolate and grieve alone if they feel that they do not want to burden others with their feelings. During special times in our lives it is simpler for people to want to celebrate with us rather than grieve with us. Additionally we have been taught to “shake it off” or “not to worry”, therefore when our pain and grief is so heart-wrenching it is easier to hide it from others and grieve alone. Just like when we celebrate the positive changes and events in our lives, we need to also be there to support children during the challenging and difficult times. Having open communication and informing the child that you are emotionally available for them at all times is important. When a child does share something with you, refrain from comments suggesting they need to “not feel bad” or to isolate. Some comments to avoid are “go to your room if you need to cry”, “when you’re done crying, then we can talk”, and “big girls don’t cry”.
Shifts in Energy: Emotional pain is exhausting, draining, and uses up a lot of our mental and emotional capacity. When a child is grieving it is normal for them to have a change in their energy levels. Energy could fluctuate and a child could have a lot of energy or minimal energy. Sometimes when we grieve we want to keep ourselves busy, therefore we miraculously find extra energy. When this happens, we will eventually begin to feel emotional burnout yet our grief and pain still remains. If you are finding the child is irritable, having difficulty falling asleep, and is over-stimulated during the day, this is something to pay attention to. On the other hand, grief can make us groggy, fatigued, and unmotivated to do our regular activities. This also occurs because our pain and emotions are so strong it becomes draining and difficult to do other things in life. For a child if you see that they are not wanting to get out of bed, having more naps than usual, or feeling fatigued, it is something to pay attention too.
These signs of grief are a normal and natural response after a loss. It is important as adults that we don’t misinterpret that there is something wrong with the child or that this behavior is abnormal. Grief is complicated, therefore our feelings and reactions can be complicated too. The best way to support a child is to give them a safe environment, allow them to be honest about their feelings, and encourage them to share their emotions and feelings around the loss.
If you are seeking professional support in how to effectively help your child through a loss, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our team at The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre. We can be reached at 780-288-8011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was written by Gina Baretta, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®, and edited by Ashley Mielke, Owner and Director of The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre. Visit www.healmyheart.ca for information about our grief counselling services and Grief Recovery Method® Programs.
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