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.
Bereaved children need the adults in their lives to understand that their grief is real and to show them how to express it constructively.
At what age is a child capable of mourning the death of a loved one? Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a well-known author and lecturer, puts it this way: "If a child is old enough to love, that child is old enough to grieve." After all, even very young children are able to feel the void in their lives when a loved one is gone. And even very young children will pick up the emotions of those caring for them, sensing that something is amiss. Parents may want to believe that there is no real grief there, but failing to deal openly with a child's loss can be, and often is, harmful to the child.
One of my most enjoyable experiences has been conducting a "little people's" group for pre-school children--some as young as 3--who have had parents or other loved ones die. Some arrive very sullen and distant. It has been a joy to see how their attitudes and behavior have changed for the better week after week, all because they have been able to say how they feel and to grieve the losses they have suffered at such a tender age.
|If a child is old enough to love, that child is old enough to grieve.|