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Grief, Loss, and Trauma in Children

Grief, Loss, and Trauma in Children
Posted on October 21, 2016 by CHS

Children can experience grief, loss, and trauma through a variety of circumstances. These can include situations such as:

  • A close friend moving away
  • A divorce in the family
  • Changing schools and losing friends
  • Experiencing violence, or the threat of violence
  • Living through a natural disaster
  • Moving to a new home
  • The death of a family member, friend, or pet
  • Tragic or scary events they see in the media

When children are confronted with these situations they often develop a variety of symptoms. Remember that children may not express grief or fear in obvious ways. This is especially true of children who do not possess the language skills or vocabulary to identify their feelings and ask for help. For this reason, it is important to observe children for signs that they are in distress and need support.

Behavior or emotion symptoms you may notice could include:

  • Behaves aggressively or is easily frustrated
  • Clinging, whining, or crying
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Difficulty separating from parents
  • Nervousness or irritability
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Re-telling / re-enacting scary events
  • Return to earlier behaviors such as bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, or baby talk
  • Withdrawal from friends or activities

Physical symptoms could include:

  • Bowel / bladder problems
  • Complaints that their vision or hearing is bothering them
  • Headaches
  • Indigestion, nausea or vomiting
  • Nightmares or restless sleeping
  • Noticeable change in appetite; either loss of appetite or over-eating
  • Persistent itching or scratching

There are some developmental facts that should be taken into account when supporting children who are experiencing grief, loss, or trauma. Children under the age of five do not understand that death is permanent and can happen to anyone. They may believe that dead people “live” in cemeteries, or that only people who are old can die. Children are also magical thinkers and interpret what they hear literally. This means that they may feel they caused a death by saying something mean, or that they can do something to bring that person back. If children hear that their next door neighbor “lost” someone, they may think that person can be found.

You can support your child as he grieves in the following ways:

  • Be honest and direct. For example, “Grandma has died. That means she is not alive anymore.”
  • Reassure your child that he is safe. “I am here to keep taking care of you.”
  • Answer questions honestly and simply. Although this can be painful at first, it is better to know than not to know. Not knowing can increase feelings of fear and anxiety.
  • Encourage your child to share his feelings by talking, drawing, or using toys to communicate with you. Label emotions your child is showing you and be patient with emotional outbursts.
  • Give your child the opportunity to say goodbye. If possible, allow your child to choose whether or not he wants to attend the funeral / burial. If he chooses not to, he can say goodbye by writing a letter, drawing a picture, or performing a religious custom that has meaning for your family.
  • Resume normal routines as soon as possible. This will provide a feeling of stability and security for your child.
  • Schedule family time for remembering deceased loved ones, celebrating anniversaries, sharing stories, creating memory books, and simply being together.

If there was a natural disaster or tragic event that your child saw on the news, consider the following tips:

  • Talk to your child about what he just saw, reassure him that you are keeping him safe, and answer his questions. Fred Rogers has shared how his mother told him to “look for the helpers” when he was a child. This is a wonderful way to show children that even when things are scary there are still people out there trying to keep everyone safe.
  • Turn off the source (television, radio, computer, mobile device). Watching media reports of tragic events can increase feelings of fear, sadness, and helplessness.

If you and your child have suffered from a traumatic event, you may want to talk to a counselor or medical professional who can guide you through the healing process. If your child attends an elementary or secondary school they will often provide families with counseling and support. Be kind to both yourself and your child. Remember that grief can come in waves that affect us emotionally and physically at unexpected times. There is no time limit for grief, and everyone has to process it in their own way and in their own time.

Here is a short list of children’s books that may be helpful to you:

  • Tear Soup by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen
  • The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia
  • Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie with Robert Ingpen
  • Everett Anderson’s Goodbye by Lucille Clifton
  • Love Never Stops: A Memory Book for Children by Emilio Parga
  • The Ant Hill Disaster by Julia Cook
  • I’m Not Scared, I’m Prepared by Julia Cook

Additional Resources:

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