Help! Why is my child not grieving?
My work as a grief support worker and parent carer group facilitator with the children’s charity Holding On Letting Go, has taught me that parents are often concerned that their child hasn’t grieved after the death of a loved one. This however, isn’t always the case. Children can show their grief in many different ways dependent on their age, gender or the specific circumstances around the death.
Children’s understanding of death
Grief responses can look very different in children because at different stages they will have a very different grasp on what death actually means.
Young children don’t understand the finality of death, so will sometimes believe that the person will come back. This lack of understanding explains why younger children may only dwell on the loss temporarily before going back to their usual activities.
However, you may find that they will come back to you later and ask when they will be seeing that person again. When children are young their understanding of the world is very circular, so they may need to be have the situation re-explained or made a little more concrete for them, in a way that they understand. This can be quite difficult for a parent too as it can be hard to break the news repeatedly, but for the child it won’t be any more distressing, it’s a way for them to consolidate their knowledge.
By the time children are at junior school age, they will have a better understanding of what death means. However, with that also comes an awareness of the feelings and expectations of others. Some children may not want to talk about their feelings for fear of upsetting their parents, while others, often boys, are more likely to be reluctant to share their tears because they have learnt that ‘big boys don’t cry.’ This withholding of emotions will be reinforced if parents try to spare their children from their own tears by only talking about it or expressing their sadness after the children are in bed.
It is important to model how to talk about feelings with your child. It may be necessary to wait until you feel emotionally able to do this without completely breaking down. If you are finding it too difficult to talk to your child in the early stages, maybe another close family member can provide this role for your child until you yourself are ready.
When children reach adolescence they may prefer to grieve more privately or with their peers in the community. In our technological age, children are increasingly using social media platforms to express themselves. They may be grieving but not in a way that is visible to you. Teenagers can often be more withdrawn but look out for any major changes in their personality or school work/behaviour. If there are no significant changes they are likely to be processing their grief in a natural way.
Initial grief responses in children
On first hearing about the death of a loved one, you may see a range of different emotional reactions including:
- tears and, sometimes, inconsolable sadness
- shock and disbelief
- numbness and a need to get on with usual activities
All of these reactions are normal, particularly if the news is unexpected and they haven’t had the opportunity to prepare themselves. Although a tearful reaction is what we might come to expect, a non-reactive response can result when a child’s in-built self protection mechanism kicks in as they are not yet emotionally mature enough to deal with the fullness of the situation, in a way that an adult might be.
Typical grief responses in children
As the reality of the situation sinks in, the grief process might become more evident. Typical grief reactions in children can include:
- problems sleeping
- vivid memories
- anger and disruptive behaviour at home or at school
- bullying or becoming a victim of bullying
- problems with concentration at school
- clinginess and a fear of being away from a parent
- worrying that someone else might die
- bed wetting or regression into younger behaviour
- bodily aches and pains - headaches, tummy upsets, skin flair ups
A child may display one or more of these behaviours and as they are not all similar to adult grief responses parents don’t always link them to their child’s grief process.
Helping your child cope
The important thing to note is that, with the love and support of close family members and the opportunity to speak freely about their emotions while having the opportunity to mark the bereavement in a concrete way, the majority of children will go through the grief process in a natural and healthy way.
The fact that you are worried about your child shows that you care. Be there for them: talk when they want to talk in a truthful and age appropriate manner, share feelings and memories when they are open to it and be open to their questions. Take your queue from them.
The death of a loved one is a really difficult thing to experience and helping your child come to terms with the loss at the same time can be emotionally challenging. Try not to worry as, if you are listening to your child and responding accordingly, you are doing a great job.
If you do feel particularly concerned about how your child is coping then Holding On Letting Go is a fantastic local charity in Kent that can help support your child or you may want to search for a counsellor who has experience in this area.
But remember, to help them you must first help yourself.
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