Children and Grief
Grief is hard enough for adults to cope with. It can be an even more confusing and frightening time for children. While instincts may direct us to shield children from pain, grief is a natural occurrence in life and children should not be hidden away or kept in the dark. By doing so, children may be unintentionally taught that their emotions and feelings are not important or that they are unimportant. Even young children can be taught to understand the concept of death. You should encourage your child to ask questions and to express their emotions.
Below is an age by age guide as to how to talk to a child about death and grieving.
Infants do not recognize death, but feelings of loss and separation are part of developing an awareness of death. Children who have been separated from their mother may be sluggish, quiet, unresponsive to a smile or a coo, undergo physical changes (for example, weight loss), be less active, and sleep less.
Two to Three Year Olds:
This age group does not have an understanding of death. They may view the deceased as sleeping. This age group should be told that a loved one has died and will not be returning.
Four to Six Year Olds:
This age group has a small understanding of death, but not how it relates to their continued existence. Four to six year olds may think that death is contagious. They may start to fear the death of their loved ones, or even themselves. They should be comforted and told that this fear is unlikely. Children this age may start having trouble controlling their bladder or bowels. Eating and sleeping problems may also arise if they have a major loss in their life. It is best to have many discussions with the child to allow them to express their emotions and concerns.
Seven to Nine Year Olds:
Children in this age group do have a real grasp on death. This age group tends to become very curious about death and what it holds for their future. While children in this age group do not tend to think they will die, they can develop fear over the death of their care givers. Children in this age group may have school problems, behavior problems and aggression. They may also withdraw, or become excessively clingy. These behaviors may not arise immediately, but months after the loss.
The reaction of adolescents is similar to adult reactions. However, this adolescents have a tendency to fall into denial and refuse to deal with their emotions and fears. These children may appear fine on the surface, but inwardly are very emotional and frightened.
If you have a child that has experienced a loss, it is important that you make yourself available to them. Many times adults are caught up in their own bereavement and are not aware of how their children are coping. Counseling is also a great resource to help a child through this difficult time.
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