Navigating Grief in Children: Understanding the Age-Specific Challenges
Often, when we think of the grieving process and how to make sense of it, we think about the five stages of grief. However, another way to help others process grief, especially children, is to consider age.
Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers often struggle to understand what death is. During their grieving period, they may regress. Examples include becoming clingier, wetting the bed, or having accidents after potty training.
Preteens may experiment with different roles/identities and try to separate that identity from the family. They may show less affection towards caregivers and/or come across as rude. They may experience moodiness, due to the need to fit in, which can lead to social anxiety.
Teenagers might experience waves or bursts of grief that come on suddenly. They might also start to withdraw from daily activities and lose interest in things that they might have previously enjoyed.
Follow the 6 R’s in helping children move through the grieving process.
- Reassure. Reinforce safety and love. Look for subtle signs of grief, model ways to express feelings, and provide choices whenever possible.
- Routine. Identify clear and consistent roles, rules, and responsibilities. Monitor high-risk behavior (for older kids) and set limits with practical consequences. Increase predictability in their environment.
- Release. Provide creative outlets through art, music, theater, and play.
- Remember. Allow children to keep mementos of deceased loved ones. Create a legacy book/box together.
- Reflect and connect. Initiate conversations about the death of the loved one. Allow for a wide range of emotional expression and provide opportunities for them to talk to non family members for support.
- Reach out. Proactively intervene and respond to signs of depression or abnormal behaviors. Ask for assistance in the best way to help children grieve.