After a loss like divorce, death, or loss of a sense of security and safety, people grieve. There are five stages of grief. The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. Children can go through these same stages. Everyone goes through these stages in their own way. Sometimes a person may go through one stage quickly and the next one slowly. Sometimes a person goes in a different order. Sometimes a person may go back and forth between stages. That is all OK.
When a child is in the denial stage, look for these signs. The child may not want to discuss the loss or does not express feelings about the loss. The child may try and keep very busy by working extra hard on school work or on projects, or even just playing in a hyperactive manner. The child may withdraw, be easily embarrassed or have poor eye contact. Problems with focus, fear, and arguing may all be common during denial.
During the anger stage, a child may blame others for their difficulties. Sullen and withdrawn behavior is often seen. A child may be irritable, impatient, and have trouble sleeping. A child that was previously potty trained may go back to bed wetting. A child may feel fearful and lose some self-esteem. Sometimes a child will project their feelings onto others, saying parents, siblings or friends are angry, not them.
During bargaining, the child may exhibit behaviors that seem very good. The child may appear very mature and school work may improve dramatically. The child may believe that doing everything “just right” will fix the situation. This won’t last. Other common signs of bargaining may involve feeling sick, guilt, crying, temper tantrums, eating problems, and attention-seeking behaviors.
Sadness shows up just the way one would expect. A child may feel worthless, guilty, and withdraw from others. Passive or regressive behaviors are common. Crying is normal. Fear of abandonment may show up here.
The final stage is acceptance. While we would all like to protect our children from trouble, it is actually trouble that makes us strong. Coming through a traumatic event can show a child that they are strong and can survive bad times. During acceptance, a child recognizes their own strength, experiences improved self-esteem and a sense of relief. During this stage, a child begins to accept responsibility for what can be controlled and let go of what cannot be controlled.
Children may also feel guilty or overwhelmed by their feelings. They may need help dealing with the stages of grief. Here are some things you can do to help them:
- If they feel like crying, let them cry. Crying can be therapeutic in times of stress. A research study in children older than five showed fewer problems emotionally and behaviorally in kids who cried and talked about their loss in the month following the loss.
- Share information with your child. Answer questions honestly but spare unnecessary details. It isn’t helpful to try and hide information from children. They are smart. They will figure out something is wrong and may imagine things are worse than they are. If a child asks, “Are we poor now that you can’t go to work?” Reassure them with something like this, “Times are tough but we’re all healthy and lots of people want to help us so we’ll make it.” Going through your entire bank statement and budget with your child won’t help them feel better.
- Talking helps, but listening helps even more. Listen to what the child is saying. If the child is reluctant to talk, provide art material such as crayons, markers, colored pencils, construction paper, scissors, glue, and modeling clay. Older children may enjoy some real drawing paper and sketching pencils. Let the child create what they want and then ask the child to tell you about it. This helps the child remember good times. Memories are precious and something we want to hold close in this time of social distancing.
The current crisis can leave everyone on edge, making it hard to let go and relax. Schools, exercise businesses, musicians, and even museums have flooded the internet with free resources to help kids cope. Older children can navigate their options and decide what seems engaging. Younger children still need guidance from an adult. The podcast, Peace Out, which is available on You Tube has many relaxation activities to try. Here are some other activities:
Taking deep breaths helps the body relax and provides extra oxygen. Oxygen helps the body feel better and the mind think clearer. There are different types of deep breathing exercises to try. Here is a simple one to get started: Tell the child to breathe in slowly while you count to four. Then, tell the child to hold their breath while you count to four. Now, have the child breathe out slowly while you count to four. Repeat two or three.
A short 3-minute massage can be a wonderful time for children and parents to feel close. Massage stimulates the whole nervous system, relaxes the muscles, and improves circulation. Begin by massaging the scalp using your fingertips. Move to the face keeping one hand on each side of the face. Move down the neck and shoulders and back. Massage each arm and hand. Give special attention to each finger. Then finish with the legs and feet. A firm touch usually prevents ticklishness.
Here are some books that can be used to help children learn coping skills in a fun manner
Sweet Dreams for Little Ones by Michael G Pappas.
The 3-minute Gratitude Journal for Kids by Modern Kid Press
Breathe Like a Bear: 30 Mindful Moments for Kids to Feel Calm and Focused Anytime by Kira Willey
Bedtime Meditations for Kids: Quick Calming Exercises to Help Kids Get to Sleep by Coy Cochiolo