Counseling Children and Adolescents Through Grief

sad-boy-on-stepsby Cristin Patterson, LLPC, NCC

Loss is an undeniable and unavoidable feature of our lives. One cannot live without experiencing loss. Unfortunately, children are no exception to this experience. Children and adolescents experience many losses during childhood through real life events, as well as through books, movies, and television.  Grief is the painful response to loss.  Children and adolescents suffer through grief and loss, but because they are still in the midst of their own development cycle, they often need assistance to help them process their feelings.

A grieving child experiences a variety of feelings and emotions that can be intense and frightening such as fear, guilt, anxiety, self-questioning, numbness, anger, and sadness regarding their loss.  These emotions can end up being expressed through a variety of behaviors.  Adults may be confused by a grieving child’s behavior and misunderstand the child because children do not process grief through an orderly process.  Children and adolescents lack maturity, abilities, and resources to cope with their grief on their own.

Children feel every loss whether it is deemed big or small.  Grief acknowledges and honors the love of someone or something that is gone.  However, children are not always recognized as grieving.  Often adults are unsure how to talk to a child because they are just as uncomfortable about their own feelings regarding the loss. As a result, the subject of grief remains taboo.  In addition, children are often thought of as resilient, and that they can just “bounce back” from grief.  Adults often sugarcoat, deny, or camouflage the reality of a child’s grief.  Messages such as “Don’t worry, it will be ok,” or “Be brave,” are attempts to minimize the pain a child is feeling. However, these admonishments can often result in increasing the child’s sense of abandonment and isolation.

In order to help children through their loss, we must recognize that they do feel grief.  Children and adolescents need support and reassurance while they process their loss.  Sometimes a child experiences a loss that may seem insignificant to an adult, but has meaning to the child.  It is important not to compare the child’s grief to that of an adult, but to take into account the meaning it has to the child, as well as understanding the child’s developmental stage.  Assisting the child through his/her grief does not mean persuading the child to “get over” his/her loss; but to redefine the relationship and at the same time hold on to meaningful memories.  The intense emotions that a child feels can be scary, so it is important for children and adolescents to be able to express their feelings, enabling their fear to ease.  Because children and adolescents are not as cognitively developed as adults they may need assistance to help them understand and label their feelings.  Acknowledging and affirming the child’s feelings will allow the child to work through them.  Once a child is able to appropriately work through the grief process, he/she gradually learns to accept the changes that are the result of their loss.

Contending with loss and grief is a reality that affects children of all ages.  A loss event leaves a permanent imprint on a child. However, children can survive and thrive if given the right support and necessary tools.  Therapeutic interventions can guide children through their grief by helping the child to accept the awareness of their loss, express their feelings, and learn new ways to cope.

Trinity Family Counseling Center
45445 Mound Rd, Suite 111 Shelby TwpMI48317 USA 
 • 586-254-3663

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