Has your child ever reacted intensely when you are out of her favorite cereal or his team jersey is in the laundry on game day? We all want our children to be happy, but how to we help them manage uncomfortable feelings like grief?
In common terms, grief is the heartfelt longing for something that you had and no longer have or for something that you want and feel is missing. Grief is not just what happens when a loved one or pet dies. Grief is a normal and natural part of the developing child’s experience. Grief comes with the inevitable ups and downs of daily life.
What Do Children Grieve About?
Children grieve when there is change. Children like structure and thrive on consistency. When things change, children can feel overwhelmed or resistant. For instance, a child who thinks she is too old to sleep with a stuffed animal or who outgrows a favorite jacket may experience a sense of loss and a need to let go. As adults, we know that the little bumps in life are manageable. We have a history of resilience to draw from. Children have little life experience and a limited concept of time. It may feel like life will never be normal again even if the change seems insignificant to us.
Children who experience big life changes such as divorce, death, moving, separation, adoption, or deployment can feel as if their world has been turned upside down. They need a supportive adult to help them navigate through the emotions and figure out how to be OK.
How Can We Help?
All children have a powerful drive to feel better and to be all right. In fact, while working in the hospital, I have seen many children receive seemingly devastating news and then, without skipping a beat, ask if they could go play. Play feels natural to children. Through play they process grief and work things out. Play allows a child to have a sense of control in a changing situation. It feels normal and is a wonderful way for a child to express himself and cope.
One of the most powerful ways to help a child grieve well is to join her in play. If you are planning a big family move, encourage your child to pretend to do things that might happen during the move, such as drive a moving truck or pack pretend boxes. If your child is worried about separation, play hide-and-seek and enthusiastically find him where ever he goes!
Grieving and Growing Tasks
There are three main developmental tasks that support a child’s ability to cope with change and grow from grief: thinking tasks, feeling tasks, and growing and doing tasks.
• Thinking Tasks
Children want to understand what is happening and need age-appropriate basic information: the what, where, when, and how of the circumstances. For instance, if a parent is deploying, a child needs to know where he is going, when he is going, and when he will be back. Children often wonder how the change will impact their day-to-day life. Who will take them to school, or come to their soccer game?
• Feeling tasks
Children want to express how they feel about the information they have heard. They need whatever they are feeling to be honored and to be normalized. Don’t be tempted to minimize or dismiss the feelings your child is having. We may want to convince her to feel better, but she needs to feel all her feelings before we try to lift her spirits. For instance, if a child is feeling angry or sad, you can show empathy in your body language and your words. “This is not what you had planned. I know it is hard right now. You have every right to be upset.”
• Growing and doing tasks
When the child is ready, let him come up with some ideas about what he can do to help himself. For instance, if someone has died, he can create a memory book or plant a tree. If the family is moving, he can plan a going-away party or look up information about baseball teams in the destination city.
Children of all ages experience grief. How we help them navigate change can provide them with life-long coping skills that will support them with the inevitable ups and downs in life.
Michele Tryon, MA, is a certified child life specialist and CHKD parent educator. For more information about upcoming community workshops offered by CHKD, please visit www.chkd.org/classes.