In my last blog, I shared some information on how children grieve and what they need from adults. In this blog I am sharing some specific information about what can happen for children who are very young, school-aged, and teens. Much of the information comes from the book Growing Up with Divorce: Helping Your Child Avoid Immediate and Later Emotional Problems by Neil Kalter, because the breakup of the family unit is a huge source of grief and pain for children. Kalter researched how children move through stages of having to deal with their grief and loss.
We need to appreciate that children are very different from adults in their experiences of grief and loss because of the many stages they need to move through as their brains develop and they assimilate life experiences, creating internal beliefs about themselves and the world.
Until they become adults, children and teens are deeply influenced by how they are being parented, how they experience secure attachment, feel safe, and are loved. Children who lack this sense of secure attachment of being loved and valued impacts how they navigate times of grief and loss, how much they hurt, and struggle to navigate the many emotions of pain and grief.
Please note that every child is unique and not all children will mirror the descriptions provided here. One thing is for sure: even the youngest children are impacted by losses in their lives and have their own unique ways of showing their grief.
The Youngest Children: Infants, Toddlers, And Preschoolers
These children can exhibit the following behaviors with variations based on their age within this category: even infants outwardly show stress, fear, and confusion.
Toddlers and preschoolers outwardly show fearfulness and hyper-vigilance in response to all the confusion in their lives.
They may also:
- Show intensified anger and extreme possessiveness. The excess stress in their lives interferes with developmental accomplishments and creates issues around sleeping, eating, motor activity, language, toilet training, and emotional independence.
- Express feelings of sadness and frustration.
- Become very impatient and exhibit great fear when experiencing even physical minor hurts.
- Be withdrawn or listless.
- Whine, cry, cling, be excessively fearful of the dark and of sleeping alone.
- Struggle with toilet training.
Preschoolers and kindergarten age children may regress to needing security blankets, there can be lapses in toilet training, increased masturbation, a return to separation, and anxiety. They are emotionally needy in other ways, sometimes reaching out inappropriately to others, randomly expressing hunger for affection and physical contact.
Emotionally, these young children are easily stressed and vulnerable, often feeling unsafe, confused, and frightened. They experience “affective flooding” that threatens to overwhelm their capacity to regulate reactions to powerful emotional stimuli; it’s very difficult for them to maintain emotional equilibrium. They cannot sort fantasy from reality so in their magical thinking they may fantasize a different ending to what has happened. They may not believe death is final and expect someone who has died to be able to come back. They worry that they will be abandoned by others.
Relationally, the process of forming strong and secure attachments is interrupted. They may be emotionally distant from others and at the same time may fear that significant others in their lives will abandon them. They may have poor judgment when it comes to who to trust. They can randomly and inappropriately express hunger for affection and physical contact from others.
School-aged children may frequently cry and sob. They can display somatic symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and asthma attacks that are intensified. They may struggle to get and stay organized. They may be unable to express their anger especially towards someone who has left them. As they get older, they may look more poised and courageous and may outwardly demonstrate high levels of resourcefulness to cope.
Emotionally, they may experience deep and pervasive sadness. They experience disorganized thinking. They may deeply yearn for the person who has passed or disappeared from their life. They may beg for gifts and weave intricate fantasies of being indulged. As they get older, they are able to use denial and are less reachable for underlying feelings of hurt and anguish.
Relationally, they can be unclear about who loves them. They can experience a shaken sense of identity, often comparing their physical characteristics to those who are no longer there. In cases of divorce, they may experience conflicts in loyalty and often keep secret the fact that they are maintaining their love for both parents.
Behaviorally, adolescents continue expressing grief through tearfulness, difficulty concentrating, chronic fatigue, and troublesome dreams. Loosened disciplining can allow teens more freedom to act out and get into trouble. Some demonstrate regressive behavior as a result of being unwilling to grow up. They may prefer playing with younger children.
Emotionally they may feel disengaged from their parents. They may feel pushed to grow and mature. They may feel less safe to go out into the world. They may experience sexual anxieties, interest, and struggles. They may feel competitive with their parents, who at the same time can mirror their adolescent struggles. They may believe they have to be the stabilizing force in the family. They can worry about sex and marriage. They worry about their own competencies in the future.
Some teens demonstrate a strategic withdrawal response, maintaining an aloof and distant stance in relationships. Many avoid rushing into peer relationships. Some can be strengthened by losses as they demonstrate greater maturity and moral or intellectual growth compared to other teens. Many work to avoid making some of the same mistakes as their parents did. They are quick to be protective, caring, and supportive of various family members.
As you can see, there is a wide range of behaviors in children and teens who have experienced grief and loss. Not every child or teen will show these and some may show others. Of course, if a child or teen becomes extremely distressed and there is any hint of them wanting to self-harm, parents and caregivers need to immediately seek professional help if they begin struggling to do well in school, have panic attacks, cut or scratch themselves, have gotten involved with drugs or alcohol, have joined a gang, or are hanging out with other young people who are known for less healthy behaviors. Then their reactions to their grief and loss is beyond normal bounds.
This information can be helpful to anyone who interacts with children and teens to raise awareness and understanding of how differently they move through grief processes. I encourage you to take it in for yourself and also share with anyone who might benefit from it.
Invitation for Reflection
- If you or someone with whom you are close has a child or teen experiencing grief and loss, what resonates with you in the information provided here.
- Is this new information for you? How does that make you feel?
- If you experienced significant grief and loss as a child, do you remember any of your behaviors, emotions or relational processes that are contained in this blog? To what extent do you think what happened to you then might be impacting you today and in what ways?