The death of a loved one is a traumatic experience for anyone, at any age. Children cope with grief in many ways. Their grief reactions differ depending on what stage of life they’re in.
Childhood grief can be incredibly complicated and prolonged based on the child’s developmental age. Understanding how children grieve and process traumatic experiences will help you get them the proper care they need and deserve.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What’s Grief Counseling for Children?
- What Are the Goals of Grief Counseling for Children?
- How Can You Tell If Your Child Needs Grief Counseling?
- How Do You Talk to Your Child About Grief Counseling?
- Tips for Finding a Grief Counselor for Children Near You
Children who experience traumatic stress undergo a series of grief reactions that are different from how adults grieve. Because a child’s grief is so unique, grief experts developed an entire sub-specialty of grief counseling just for them. Let's explore grief counseling for children and how it helps a child struggling to cope with the pain and sorrow of loss.
What’s Grief Counseling for Children?
Grief counseling for children is a specialized psychotherapy treatment that provides added emotional and psychological support for children who are mourning a loss. As a child learns to cope with their emotional responses to death and other types of losses, they may need the added guidance of a trusted professional.
Some of the most common grief reactions in bereaved children are the fear of abandonment, fear of subsequent deaths, and behavioral challenges in school. A small percentage of children will experience higher levels of traumatic grief that develop into psychiatric issues shortly following their experience with death.
Contributing factors may include a child’s developing brain and cognitive functioning as well as the stress hormones present in their body. A grief counselor trained to identify these issues early on can keep the child from getting stuck in their grief and suffering added complications as they get older.
What Are the Goals of Grief Counseling for Children?
Grief counseling in children facilitates the processing of grief reactions in recently bereaved children. It also helps those who are in their grief move forward while they learn to integrate their loss into their lives. The overall goal of grief counseling for children is to help grieving children understand and adjust to the loss of their loved one or any other type of trauma suffered as they adapt to their new reality.
Understand their loss
There’s almost always an educational component to children’s grief counseling. Most children suffering from the death of a close family member may not have ever before experienced the death of someone they know and love. Children tend to become confused when confronting their grief and need added guidance and support. A trained grief counselor has the necessary tools and training to help a child make sense of what’s happened.
Acquire coping skills
Many children who experience the death of a loved one or are victims of abuse feel guilty and blame themselves for their loss. In addition, they may develop mistrust and irrational fears of them or those closest to them dying. These emotional grief reactions tend to lead to behavioral issues both at home and at school when left untreated.
Decreasing traumatic symptoms
A child who undergoes grief counseling almost always sees decreased distress compared to children who don’t receive any treatment. Although many children get through their grief without professional intervention, sometimes their suffering can last longer. A child who doesn’t understand what’s happened and how to cope with their loss may struggle unnecessarily for years afterward.
Process grief without impaired functioning
Grief counseling allows children to get back on track after experiencing trauma so that they can enjoy life once again. Many bereaved children spend years recovering from their loss. When grief’s left untreated, a child may:
- Suffer changed relationships with their friends and family
- Have difficulty discovering new aspects of self
- Lose interest in life
- Experience a sense of lost hope
How Can You Tell If Your Child Needs Grief Counseling?
The majority of children who experience grief and trauma are resilient and bounce back after a period of adjustment without the need for professional intervention. However, some don’t fare as well.
By the time you notice, you may not understand how to help your child. When you’re at a loss on what steps to take next, this might be one indication that your child needs the support of a trained grief counselor who knows and understands childhood loss and bereavement.
Understanding grief and loss in children is a specialty among professional grief counselors that requires specific training. Because children are often confused and isolated during their first grief experience, these experiences can be frightening and lonely.
Although most children and teens will return to healthy levels of functioning within one year after experiencing a significant loss, some will experience challenges dealing with their grief. There are several lingering grief reactions to look out for to determine if your child will benefit from grief counseling.
While children go through mourning much as adults do, the way they interpret their grief varies significantly. Their grief reactions mainly depend on the following factors:
- Their age and maturity
- The relationship to the person who died
- How their loved one died
Common grief reactions that signal there may be a problem with how a child’s coping with their grief is when they become isolated and withdrawn. You might also notice the development of night terrors and hyper-attachment to the surviving parent or siblings in cases where a close loved one has died.
Keep reading to find out how to approach having a conversation about death with your child at any age.
How Do You Talk to Your Child About Grief Counseling?
When you talk to kids about death, this is an excellent time to speak to them about seeing a grief counselor. Many children will initially resist seeing a counselor. Still, once you explain to them that this is an added opportunity to learn about life, death, and dying, they may be more receptive to going.
Some adults try and protect children from the effects of the emotional pain and suffering following a close loved one’s death by not having these crucial conversations. Most children understand loss at some level. Avoiding these conversations is often caused by the parent’s fears and discomfort talking about death.
While young children from infants to three years old generally can’t process the absence of a close loved one such as a parent or caregiver, they do experience their absence. With infants and toddlers, you may want to gradually weave the death of their loved ones into your daily conversations until they are old enough to understand their loss.
Children in the following age group up until approximately eleven interpret grief and loss much differently. Young children can perceive when something terrible has happened, and elementary school-aged children understand that death is permanent.
Reading children’s books about death together may help make having these conversations easier. Prepare yourself to answer pointed questions about what’s happened without withholding the truth or feeling that you have to protect the child’s emotional wellbeing.
Tips for Finding a Grief Counselor for Children Near You
Finding the right grief counselor for your child that knows how to work with children experiencing grief and trauma is essential for getting a grieving child back on track. Bereaved school-aged children go through ebbs and flows of grief reactions in which they appear fine one day and sad and angry the next.
These are natural and normal grief reactions. You can expect a child to go through these constant changes for several months after the loss. Seeing a grief counselor can gradually help them understand how to best deal with their changing emotions.
Seek an experienced grief counselor for children
Traumatic stress impedes a child’s ability to process their grief healthily. Because children process their grief differently than many adults, recognizing how a child’s coping with their grief is essential in providing the proper care and treatment.
A grief counselor who discerns these nuances typical of distress in children will understand their grief responses when they struggle with pain and sorrow. Some of the signs a child is experiencing grief-related stress include:
- Perceiving intrusive death images about how their loved one died
- Avoiding places that remind them of their deceased loved one
- Feeling anxious about falling asleep because they have nightmares
Ask your friends for recommendations
When a child loses a parent, dealing with childhood trauma can be especially harrowing for parents whose children have never before dealt with a significant loss. Parents and caregivers who are in mourning may be too wrapped up in their grief to successfully address their child’s bereavement needs as well as their own. Begin by asking your close friends and family for recommendations on grief counselors near you experienced in treating grieving children.
Try a few before making a decision
Finding the right fit for your child is essential to their overall grief recovery. You don't need to commit to any particular grief counselor after only one session. Be upfront when meeting with the counselor and let them know that you're vetting several before making a final decision.
You'll want to pay close attention to your child's non-verbal cues as well as their opinions on their interactions. Forcing a child to attend counseling with someone they're uncomfortable with may further complicate their grief recovery.
Talk with your child’s guidance counselor
Another great place to start your search is with your child’s school guidance counselor. Most schools are now equipped with grief and trauma counselors or have the necessary resources to recommend one to you.
Alerting your child’s school counselor of any recent loss is also a good idea so that they’re aware of what your child is experiencing. Many children act out in school as they adjust to their loss. Their guidance counselor will ensure that their teachers and staff are aware to react accordingly to your child.[Explain
Talk to their pediatrician
Voicing your concerns to their pediatrician at your child’s next appointment allows your child’s healthcare givers an opportunity to intervene when necessary. They can help monitor your child’s progression through grief and recommend seeking counseling when it’s time. Most doctors have grief support specialists referrals on hand. They can steer you in the right direction or to a community service who can.
Grief Support for Bereaved Children
Loss brings about a varied range of grief responses in children of all ages. Most bereaved children manage to get through their grief will just the help and support of their friends and loved ones. However, some grieving children will need to seek a trained professional grief counselor to get them through the most challenging aspects of their grief recovery.
Early intervention helps avoid some of the deeper issues associated with childhood loss and trauma.