Grief and loss for children and adolescents
How children and adolescents understand, process and express their loss can vary.
How children and adolescents understand, process and express their loss varies depending on their age and developmental stage.
Past experiences and their connection with what or who they have lost also come into play and can present varying responses and behaviours in the child both at the time of the event and also over time, even months or years after the initial loss.
Grief and loss responses in children
Grief and loss responses in a child are not always obvious, sometimes they are acute and affect the child physically as well as emotionally. Common grief responses in children include:
- butterflies in the stomach
- angry outbursts
- challenging behaviour at school
- refusal to attend school
- lack of focus and concentration
- withdrawal from the family or a particular parent
Some of these responses in the child may also be difficult for the parent or carer to manage and as a parent you may find yourself feeling angry, hurt or want to withdraw for the child. It is important to recognise that the child’s response is very normal and natural for their developmental stage and that they may not have the words to express what is happening for them or they may be confused, shocked or overwhelmed by what is happening and are responding in a way which makes sense for them.
Young children may not understand that the loss may be permanent, (in the case of death or divorce) and they may ask many questions about the permanent change or they may withdraw and not ask any questions. Each child and adolescent is different. A child may believe that the loss is somehow linked to something they have done. During this time, the need to feel loved, protected and cared for may be experienced as a demand or that they are being unreasonable. It is important to know that these behaviours may be exhibited when a person is feeling scared, unsafe, fearful and confused.
During this time, providing comfort and reassurance and maintaining the routines which have been in place can support the child who has experienced loss and is grieving. Routines will provide them with a sense of security and predictability. When loss and grief issues are recognised particularly within a safe, open and sensitive manner, the child may not feel so alone or disengaged from their family, friends, social groups or at school.
EAST for Children
You may also find the following EAST tool (children’s version) helpful in re-establishing some practical patterns prior to the experience of loss
Eating: ensure the child eats regularly and healthily, increasing their water intake during the day, so they remain hydrated during this difficult time.
Activities: restart activities, which you know they enjoyed prior to this loss, including some type of exercise every day if possible.
Sleeping: ensure that they go to bed at the same time, which they would have done prior to this loss. Ensure that they avoid eating high sugar foods or a large meal at least two hours prior to sleep.
Time: organise times in discussion with the child for them to catch up with friends or organise a sleepover of a friend at your house and family. If you are requiring more formal support, reach out to your GP for a referral to a counselling service and/or you can contact a helpline service to work with you on your experience of loss.
Kids Help Line
1800 551 800
Headspace National Office:
1800 650 890
Feel the Magic
(03) 8413 8413
Drug Alcohol and Problem Gambling Support Line
1800 888 236