How to Support a Young Child with Grief and Loss

How to Support a Child Dealing With Grief and Loss

Grief is a natural emotional response to a loss. Loss can be associated with a big change (like moving, or not being able to see your friends during a pandemic), or it could even be the death of a loved one.  All losses can be painful or difficult to experience. Humans are built to connect with loved ones and to miss them when they are gone. We are built to enjoy things being consistent, and thus change can throw us for a loop.  Grief and loss is difficult no matter how or when you experience it, and we all cope with grief in our own ways. There are many children and families all over the world who are experiencing grief and loss now. Some have experienced the death of a loved one, while others are experiencing the loss of what their lives used to look like, before the pandemic. This month we are introducing our new Rainbow Sprite and Rainbow Unicorn to highlight the need to support children and families around all types of grief and loss. Here are some tips and resources to help you and your family cope with grief and loss: 

  1. Self-Care: Parents are probably getting sick of hearing this, but it is SO vital to take care of your own needs and feelings first. Children are wired to connect with their parents. They sense the emotional states of the adults and peers around them. When stress or grief are present in the home, children will sense this. It’s not the end of the world if they do, but finding ways to reduce your own stress and grief can help children rest assured that their parents have the support they need. This frees the kids up, to just be kids.

  2. Understand Behaviors: All behavior is communication. Children will often show their grief through testing boundaries or acting out (and sometimes withdrawing).  Grief can often look like defiant or acting-out behaviors. Your child also may act like a younger version of themselves. They may become clingy or needy. If your child has experienced a big loss, these behaviors make complete sense. This is their attempt to communicate their big feelings. Continue to set limits around unsafe behaviors, but do your best to allow space for your child to express their feelings. Children are masters at releasing tension through emotional expression. 

  3. Talk about it:  Children will sense changes in the family and can often believe these changes are their fault. We recommend that you talk to your children about the loss, even if you aren’t sure they will understand. Choose developmentally appropriate language. See our post here with more details about talking about grief and loss with your child.

  4. Be consistent:  In the midst of changes, including the death of a loved one, children need reassurance. We recommend trying hard to stick to a regular routine and schedule. Posting a visual schedule (a schedule with words and pictures for each step) can be helpful for children to feel more confident about what comes next in their day. This creates a sense of predictability that is reassuring to children who have experienced any type of loss or change.

  5. Play: Children process and express feelings through play. Allow plenty of time for your child to play on their own, and with you. You can offer additional toys to their play that may help them explore feelings about their change. (ie, if someone in the house is sick, offer them a doctor kit to play with, if they don’t go to school anymore, add a school bus to the mix etc). Children naturally move towards emotional expression and healing when they play. 

  6. Food, Water, Exercise, Sleep: Grief and loss shows up in our bodies. Our bodies help us to communicate our feelings and process them. It’s always good to take care of our bodies but we need it even more so when we are experiencing grief. Try your best to allow your child time to play outdoors. Help them get plenty of gross-motor activity (running, climbing, jumping etc) are all very soothing and regulating for our systems.

  7. Get More Support: Some types of grief and loss are typical, and others can be scary or traumatic. Whatever type of loss it is, remember that our bodies response to this loss is normal. Even though our grief may make sense, it can still be helpful to seek support around losses, for ourselves or children. Check with a mental health provider or medical provider to explore your options for additional support in your community. Many therapists have moved their practices online to accommodate for social distancing measures during this time. 

We hope these tips are helpful to you and your loved ones. Our hearts are with all of you, as we navigate these challenging times together. 

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