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Childhood Grief: When to Seek Additional Help

Childhood Grief: When to Seek Additional Help Childhood Grief: When to Seek Additional Help

A large majority of children experience the death of a close family member or friend at some point during their childhood. Before the COVID-19 ​pandemic, an estimated 1 in 20 children grieved the death of a parent by the age of 16.

Sadly, these averages will no doubt rise as the pandemic continues. In fact, more than 140,000 children under the age of 18 in the United States have lost a parent or grandparent to COVID​ so far.

If your child has lost a loved one, you may wonder what symptoms of grief to expect—and what might be cause for more concern. The answers vary depending on your child's age and what you consider their typical behavior.

Children are individuals. Their grief is, too.

Some children want to talk about the person who died; others don't want to share their feelings at all. Because responses to grief vary, it's important never to assume what a child may or may not be experiencing. Make it clear you are there for them if, and when, they want to talk. And when they do, be sure to listen to them.

Consider what's typical for your child

Vicki Jay, CEO of National Alliance for Grieving Children, encourages parents to think about their child's individual temperament.

"When a behavior or personality trait is different than it was before the loss, this is often a sign the child is struggling with grief and may need some extra support," she said. For example, a child who is usually outgoing might become withdrawn and want to be alone all the time. A teen who is known to be strong, independent, and motivated may now seem unable to make decisions or complete projects.

Signs your child may need help

According to the Center for Loss and Life Transition, these are some of the signs that a grieving child may benefit from additional support:

  • Ongoing sleep difficulties or restlessness
  • Low self-esteem or depression.
  • Persisent academic failure or lack of interest in school-related activities
  • Breakdown of relationships with family and friends
  • Risk-taking behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, fighting, or sexual experimentation

Important note on tweens

After the death of a loved one, it's important not to overlook the unique needs of older adolescents and tweens.

"The rich inner lives of tweens are too often dismissed by adults, who see them as kids who don't know better," warns Joe Primo, author of What Do We Tell the Children: Talking to Kids About Deathand Dying and CEO of Good Grief, a not-for-profit organization providing bereavement support for children and families. "But when we pay close attention to their questions, emotions, and how they are processing grief, we can be more responsive to their needs while also learning from their perspective."

Some ways to help children of any age who are struggling with grief

Remembering to heal. Children sometimes fear they will forget the person who died. Finding ways to recognize and remember what was valuable in the child's relationship with the person who died is part of the healing process.

Returning to a regular routine. Children often have a hard time concentrating on their schoolwork after losing a loved one. But getting back to school and a regular routine is important for your children's health and can help them move along in their grieving process, as long as they receive sufficient support and accommodations. Talk to your children's teachers and other key people at the school about how extra support such as tutoring and temporary changes in their class workload might help.

Talk to your pediatrician. After a death, children often worry about their own health and that of others they love. The stress of the loss also can cause symptoms such as headaches and stomach problems. Your children's health care provider can help identify ailments tied to physical illness, emotional distress or a combination of the two. They can also point you to community resources such as bereavement support groups and camps.

Anticipate grief triggers. Grief can be worsened by important events, such as holidays, and everyday experiences such as hearing their loved one's favorite song. Help your children understand that these experiences are natural. Explain that while grieving can last a lifetime, they will continue to develop new skills in coping with the pain of their loss.

Finding support

Many parents struggle to find the right words to help their children process their grief. They, too, may be processing their own emotions. But know you are not alone. If you think your child is having trouble moving forward in the grieving process, or if you simply have questions, there are community resources that can help. Talk to your child's pediatrician and reach out to guidance counselors, clergy, local social workers, and therapists to help your child. Make it clear that seeking help from others is an act of strength.

Additional Information:

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (Copyright © 2020)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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