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Children & Grief: Symptoms & Coping Methods

Children & Grief: Symptoms & Coping Methods

Children & Grief: Symptoms & Coping Methods

Loss is an inevitable part of life, and grief is a normal response to a significant loss that may be traumatic if not addressed.

Although grief looks different for everyone, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain (Pressman & Bonanno, 2007). Viewing grief as a process of healing can be helpful for an individual. Grieving is a highly individualized and personal experience (Rosner, Pfoh, & Kotoucova, 2011).

Although death is a permanent loss, other types of loss can be devastating for a child as well, such as moving or divorce. It is important to understand that a child’s grieving style may not match a parent’s or other family member’s.

In addition to a family’s potential role as providers of support, family members often share a long-standing relation with the deceased and a substantial mutual history with the bereaved survivor. Grieving then becomes a form of social bonding (Pressman & Bonanno, 2007).

In discussing death with a child, remembering the person who died is a way of healing. Answer any questions they may have as truthfully and direct as possible. A child often asks questions because they are curious or don’t understand.

Variations in Grieving Children

With grief comes many unknowns. Each experience of grief is unique, personal, and complex. Children experiencing complicated grief may present very differently in each encounter (Athan, 2015).

A multidisciplinary approach may be useful, as many aspects of an individual’s life are affected in such a trying time. Working with a therapist, as well as a medical doctor, may be helpful if an individual suffers from depression or anxiety as a result of their grief. Medication management along with therapy could help an individual through the grieving process. Play therapy, art therapy, peer support, and support groups are forms of intervention that allow grieving children to live as normally as possible.

The “normal” grieving process in children may include:

  • Denial
  • Emotional numbing
  • Anger, irritability, and episodic rage
  • Fear and characteristic rushes of anxiety (pangs)
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty sleeping, nightmares
  • Regressive behaviors
  • Physical complaints – “stomachaches” or headaches
  • Changes in appetite (overeating or lack of interest in food)
  • Visual or auditory misperceptions of the loved one’s image or voice

Worrisome symptoms or behaviors in grieving children:

  • Signs of depression and/or anxiety
  • Drop in grades
  • Dangerous risk taking
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Threatening to hurt self or others
  • Violent play
  • Use of drugs or alcohol
  • Total withdrawal from people and environment
  • A dramatic change in personality or functioning over a long period of time
  • Any of the “normal” behaviors happening over a very long time or to an extreme

Family Support

Families may also work as support systems to a grieving child. Family focused grief therapy works to enhance the functioning of the family, increase cohesion as a family unit, and maintain healthy communication (Kissane et al., 2006). An individual may benefit from exploring treatment within physical, social, spiritual, and psychological domains.

Victoria E. Bowen, B.S., B.A.


Athan, Lisa. (2015). Grief Speaks: Signs of Grief in Children and Teens. [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.griefspeaks.com/id4.html

Kissane, D. W., McKenzie, M., Bloch, S., Moskowitz, C., McKenzie, D. P., & O’Neill, I. (2006). Family focused grief therapy: A randomized, controlled trial in palliative care and bereavement. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(7), 1208-1218. doi: 10.1080/02682620308657563

Pressman, D. L. & Bonanno, G. A. (2007). With whom do we grieve? Social and cultural determinants of grief processing in the United States and China. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24(5), 729-746. doi:10.1177/0265407507081458

Rosner, R., Pfoh, G., Kotoucova, M. (2011). Treatment of complicated grief. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 2. doi:10.3402/ejpt.v2i0.7995

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