Do Children Grieve?

BY: Helen Fitzgerald

 

Do children grieve? At what age is a child capable of grieving? How can we, as adults, help our children when some personal tragedy has occurred? These are all good questions that people frequently ask. Even though we were all children once, we have difficulty remembering what it was like to be a child, wholly dependent on the decisions of others. How children are affected by major events in their lives--for example, death or divorce--is something adults wonder about but are never certain they understand.

Do children grieve? In their desire to shield children from pain & unpleasantness, many adults want to believe that children adjust with relative ease to the death of a loved one. But over my career I have worked with thousands of children who have lost parents, siblings, and beloved grandparents, and there is no question in my mind that even young children do, indeed, grieve.

It is natural that parents want to protect their children from the effects of personal tragedy, but the best way to do this is to help them express their grief, not deny it.

It would be a great help to parents if kids would be open about their grief, but children generally do what they think their parents want them to do. If saying nothing about their grief is what they believe is expected of them, they will express it in other, less obvious ways, leaving the parents puzzled about their behavior and wondering what to do about it. If a major loss has occurred and a child seems to be "taking it all in stride," that may be the first sign of trouble.

What I have found is that children's grief, once it has been glossed over so they can "get on with their lives," begins to show itself in various ways. Seemingly unrelated behavioral problems begin to appear, such as fights at school, day-dreaming, or bad grades. Moodiness, fits of temper, overeating, or lack of appetite are other possible signs that a child is grieving.

It is natural that parents want to protect their children from the effects of personal tragedy, but the best way to do this is to help them express their grief, not deny it. Time and again, I have seen misbehaving youngsters--especially boys--brighten up and start responding with enthusiasm when they were allowed to talk about their losses and to express their grief openly. Girls can present a different problem. They may not show the aggression that boys show, but they are more likely to reveal their grief through dour moods, eating disorders, or even the loss of friendships. Their lives begin to return to normal once their grief has been acknowledged and they have been given ways to express it.

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