Every change involves loss. Every loss must be grieved. Whether a divorce, death, or new home/new school, all are life-changing events and, as such, will trigger the grieving process.
There are five generally accepted stages of grieving – Denial/Shock, Anger/Resentment, Bargaining, Sadness/Depression, and Acceptance. Children, as well as adults, move through these stages, but children move through them differently, depending on their stage of development. They may move in and out of these phases, not necessarily in any order, and new events i.e., new marriage, new birth, etc. may re-trigger the grieving process at a later time.
Children from 0 – 2 yrs of age tend to react to the emotions of the caregiver. The loss reactions are generally regression, crying, irritability and clinginess.
Preschool years are a time of egocentricity and “magical” thinking – they believe their thoughts or behaviors can cause or undo the loss. They also regard the loss as temporary, reversible. Repetitious questioning is also characteristic of this period. Tantrums, bedwetting, thumb sucking, sleep problems, and fear of separation are all typical loss reactions.
Elementary school children tend to react with great sadness and fears of abandonment. They may experience school and learning problems, eating/sleeping problems, regression and fighting.
Children approximately 9 – 12 yrs. of age tend to react with intense anger. They may demonize or reject one parent. They begin to understand the concept of finality. Parents should be cautioned not to confide in the child or encourage role reversal. (i.e., do not make the boy the “man of the house”)
Adolescents may react with anger, depression, even suicidal ideation. There may be acting out with drugs, sex, or aggression.
The following are ways you can help your child through these trying times:
1. Allow yourself to grieve first. Children have a delayed reaction from 6 mo. to a year. They will wait for you to pick up the pieces.
2. Keep the daily routine as consistent as possible.
3. Watch for signs of maladjustment. Seek counseling, if necessary.
4. Give more love and support than usual.
5. Keep answers honest, simple and short.
6. Help them recognize, name, accept and express feelings.
7. Provide creative outlets for Anger. Depending on their interests, encourage keeping a journal, writing poems, stories, and songs, dancing and singing, sports, playing with dolls, puppets, art, and literature. These latter suggestions allow them to distance from their feelings, creating a less threatening environment in which to deal with them.
Karen Biron-Dekel is the author of Anger’s Way Out, an excellent, highly recommended resource for parents.