By Julie Johnson
When we invite play, curiosity, and consistent connection, we create a safe container for our young learners to explore their big emotions in the midst of loss. And when we normalize grief as part of the human experience and acknowledge and process our own grief, our children can learn to lean into theirs with tender awareness instead of avoidance.
We can familiarize ourselves with how grief might show up in a child at all ages and stages by remembering the following:
Grief is a normal response for all humans
Grief is a universal human experience that can affect anyone at any time, and at any age. For some kids, the loss might be the death of a loved one, a loss of a friendship, or changes in family dynamics like divorce or separation. And while these unpleasant experiences are 1) inevitable and 2) painful, they are building blocks for resilience, growth, and empathy.
Children are allowed to feel their pain
We can normalize a kid’s grief by allowing them to share openly about the loss without stepping into the experience with them. Affirming statements like “That has to be really hard” or “I can see you are in a lot of pain right now” can be soothing to a grieving child. If you find it hard to be the guide by the side, ask yourself: How can I bear witness to my child’s grief without stepping in to fix it?
Learning to recognize the different ways in which our children express grief is essential to their emotional well-being and development. It’s important that caregivers are open and honest about their own losses and grief processes. When parents and caregivers can normalize grief within themselves, it can create a culture of inclusivity.
Questions to consider:
- What losses can I anticipate my child will experience at some point in life?
- Are there any losses I might be grieving right now?
- How can I support my child in staying curious about grief?
- Who can support my family in our grief journey?
Grief is expressed differently in children than adults
When children experience the loss or death of a loved one, their grief can be held in the body or found in their daily behavior. A child’s response to grief might be different depending on age as well. Take a look at the developmental differences in response to grief:
- Regressions in language and communication abilities
- Presents with anxiety when a caregiver leaves
- Toileting problems, bed wetting
- Sleep disruption
- Early School Age:
- Might blame themselves for the death or loss
- Express discomfort in the tummy, head, or other body aches
- Emotional aggression
- Loss of expressive language abilities
- Changes in social patterns and personal interests
- Late Elementary School to Junior High
- May choose to take on more adult responsibilities
- Increased people pleasing
- Strong emotional responses around the loss
- Social withdrawal
- Increased interest in death and mortality
- Issues with concentration may arise
- Emotional overwhelm
- Lack of language around emotions
- Disruptive sleep patterns or nightmares
- Increased questions about death, mortality, and loss
Grief can yield personal growth
While it may feel instinctual to protect our children from pain, that often harms more than it helps. When we build a culture of curiosity and creativity around our grief, we can support our children in expanding their emotional intelligence, and help them find healthy coping mechanisms. Here's how to support childhood grief by age:
- Provide comforting items
- Stick to a predictable routine
- Normalize loss and death
- Remind them that you are there for them
- Play often
- Pay attention to expressions of grief
- Early Elementary
- Stick to a predictable routine
- Hold space for questions
- Give honest, authentic answers
- Model words for emotions to describe how you feel
- Make connections to loss in nature
- Late Elementary to Middle School
- Expect age-appropriate responses
- Be a regular presence
- Invite support from mentors, therapists, and teachers
- Give honest answers
- Acknowledge when you don’t know something
- Accept varying reactions and expressions
- Offer comforting words
- Be present
- Allow for space
- Discuss loss and death organically
- Keep routines consistent
Tools for Moving Through Grief
1. Identify a language around grief with the Time-In ToolKit
The My Feelings Card Set and Activity Mat included in the Time-In ToolKit was developed for meeting challenging situations using play, connection, and curiosity. This tool can support you and your learners to build problem-solving skills and social-emotional development as they explore ways to regulate their emotions. The mat guides kids to 1) notice how they feel, 2) choose a calming strategy such as deep breathing or moving their body, 3) revisit how they feel after their chosen activity, 4) and decide if they feel better than when they started.
2. Build social-emotional awareness with SnuggleBuddies
For kids who might be acting out to communicate their grief, consider exploring the tender care of SnuggleBuddies plush toys. Through play, your little one can learn ways to feel powerful in the midst of adversity with Red Bear, identify small moments of joy with Orange Fox, learn about emotional balance with Yellow Lion, explore ways they are loved with Green Hummingbird, take a moment to feel inner peace with Blue Dolphin, learn to trust the sound of their inner voice and intuition with Indigo Owl, and build awareness and opportunities to practice forgiveness with Violet Elephant.
Whether they feel connected to just one, two, or all of them, SnuggleBuddies can be a consistent loving witness to your child’s big emotions and support them in transforming their grief into deeper social-emotional awareness.