What are the signs that our children need help in grieving?
What are some helpful tools we can utilize to provide a safe place for them?
How do we parent our children effectively amidst significant “losses” in their lives?
Grief is both a personal and a shared experience. The depth of our grief depends on the value we have assigned to a person, a relationship, an opportunity, and other important factors in our lives.
As parents with the duty to become caregivers to the next generation, it is important to recognize that children experience grief for every transition through stages of life as they become less dependent on us growing up. It can also be grieving the loss of attention when a new sibling arrives; a re-location to a new home; a family member leaving home; a pet dying; a change in holiday tradition; a cancelled vacation; or an unfulfilled gift, request, or promise.
Every child grieves in their own unique way and in their own time. Grief shows in uneasy sleeping patterns, nightmares, unusual eating habits, lack of bowel and bladder control, and changes in behavior at home and school. The word “normal” does not exist when it comes to grief. Although, as caregivers, we can recognize these symptoms of grieving.
Here are some suggested tools to journey with your child in their grief:
(Disclaimer: The following information are tools to recognize normal verbal, emotional, and physical behaviors. However, it is still best to consult a professional for a proper diagnosis and appropriate help. This blog is not a replacement for any therapeutic intervention.)
1. Allow them to grieve in their own way
Give the child permission to show whatever emotion they are feeling. Some children would like to talk about the deceased or the loss—a lot. Some would initially act like everything is fine. Some will have an inability to concentrate or focus or even have strong feelings about seemingly small things. Others experience pain in the stomach and other areas unexplained by physicians. Some need to touch people frequently or resort to frequently playing video games.
Note: What you need to especially watch out for are self-destructive behaviors, dangerous risk-taking, threats to hurt self or others, total withdrawal from people and environment, violent play, and a dramatic change in personality or function over a long period of time.
2. Be curious and show them that you care
Ask open-ended questions to help them describe and express what they think, and how they feel. For example, “I was thinking about the death of your pet, and it brought a big lump in my throat. I feel sad. How do you feel about it?”
In asking questions, choose words that are unobtrusive and paced. Be comfortable with silence. Wait for the child to respond. Asking questions one after the other may sound interrogating. Try to refrain from asking questions using “Why?” as this connotes something that needs to be defended.
Showing care means you give the child your full attention while you are checking on them. Some ways may be through locking eye contact, becoming fully attentive with the words they use or being observant with their non-verbal cues, and assuring them that they have all the time to grieve. It also helps to remind them that you are willing to walk with them in the process.
3. Create a safe space to welcome questions and provide honest answers.
Children start asking about the concept of death or loss when they experience it. Some of the common questions they ask are “What is death? Why do people or pets die? Where do they go when they die? Will I die, too? Why do we have to move to a new place? Can’t they come back?”
These questions are usually asked after the immediate loss. But sometimes it can come out of nowhere six to eight months after the shocking incident. Give them the most honest answers, with an appropriate age response. Ask the Holy Spirit to discern if this can be an open door to share the gospel.
4. When both of you are grieving, own your grief as you recognize your child’s grief.
It is difficult to process grief with your child if the whole family is grieving. Separating your grief from your child’s is something we need to remind ourselves as caregivers. A child is vulnerable to mimic the way we handle the loss and cope. Kids have a harder time to come out of their emotional shell than adults.
Create a family tradition, like going to your deceased loved one’s grave every Christmas, or make a commemorative cry box that can be utilized to store uncontainable emotions so you can grieve together.
Improved parenting skills (specifically, collaborative parenting between parents and their children) contribute to enhanced self-regulation in providing a safe environment for our children. By joining parent support groups, attending parenting classes, and tapping the help of mental health professionals to work through an intervention plan, when necessary, are some things that a parent can explore to assist the child as they deal with their “losses.”
Equipping our children to grieve for great or small losses is an important initiative that promotes healthier well-being for them as they mature. Without learning the skill to grieve, children may grow up feeling confused, overwhelmed, helpless, stuck, physically, and emotionally drained, chronically irritable, or angry. When a caregiver decides to intentionally process grief at home, through teaching and modeling it, the child learns to navigate the terrain of loss. They become familiar with the cycles of grief, enabling them to confront fear when losses occur.
As a child welcomes the grieving process and discovers that exploring losses is not destructive but is simply part of life’s cycle, it allows them to gain resilience amidst pain and disappointment—capable of moving toward a life that is meaningful to them.
Proverbs 22:6 says “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Teaching our child basic, yet valuable, life skills equips them to conquer the losses, pain, defeat, and the sting of death in our imperfect world.
APA Dictionary of Psychology.
Adler-Tapia, R. (2012). Child psychotherapy. New York: Springer Pub. Co.
Davediuk Gingrich, H. and Gingrich, F.( 2017). Treating trauma in Christian counseling.
Grossman, D. (2012). Teaching Children the Skill of Grieving.
Nathan, E. (2019). When Children Grieve.
What does it mean to train a child in the way he should go?
Phoebe Sebastian is currently a certified student-member of the Philippine Association of Christian Counselors. She is taking a degree in Master of Arts in Counseling at the Alliance Graduate School. She is a wife to Brian Sebastian and a mom to Daven, KK, and CC.