Children cope with grief in different ways than adults do, but their grief is no less real or painful. Although each child reacts in an individual way, some behavior patterns are common. According to child trauma expert Cathy Malchiodi, your child might regress to an earlier stage of development, as evidenced by behaviors such as bedwetting. He might become clingy, ask the same questions over and over, experience mood swings or even appear numb. Help your child work through his grief using a variety of therapeutic activities. (See Reference 1)
Effects of Developmental Stages on Grief (See Reference 1)
Malchiodi suggests that grief processes are affected by the child’s stage of psychological development. Groundbreaking developmental theorist Jean Piaget divided cognitive development into four stages. From ages 2 through 7, children are in the preoperational stage. They are egocentric and may not be able to differentiate between thoughts and actions. They are often unable to separate reality from fantasy, and do not easily comprehend the finality of death. The concrete operational stage lasts from ages 7 through 11. They are literal thinkers who understand that death is final and irreversible but may believe that it takes different forms, such as skeletons or ghosts. Around the age of 11, children enter the final stage, formal operational thought. At this point, they begin to conceptualize the abstract and philosophical meanings of death. As children progress through the stages of development, their grief processes change. Preoperational children might ask when the person is coming back. Concrete operational kids might ask how their lives will be affected, and formal operational children might want to discuss the concept of an afterlife and the reasons why someone might die young.
Art projects are helpful for children who have trouble expressing their grief verbally. Drawing a picture of the deceased person creates a memorial, while drawing pictures of the family before and after the death helps children process the changes in their lives. (See Reference 2, pg. 12) To relieve anger and frustration, try decorating a cardboard box that the child can scream into or destroy with a plastic bat. (See Reference 2, pg. 8) To resolve unfinished business or communicate things that were left unsaid, have the child create a message in a bottle. (See Reference 3, pg. 2) Draw a picture or write a note for the deceased person. Put it in a bottle and seal it with a cork, then let your child decide whether to send it floating in a body of water or keep it as a memento.
Family Rituals (See Reference 4)
Family rituals help your child realize that even though someone is missing, the family is still intact. They build bonds and increase feelings of safety and security. According to The Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families, family rituals can be elaborate or simple. Set aside time to just talk about the deceased person. Answer children’s questions honestly and in simple, direct terms. Hold a private memorial service and consider making it an annual tradition.
For Teens (See Reference 5)
Grief can be particularly difficult to manage during the chaotic teen years. Some teens want to participate in therapeutic exercises, while others want to get back to normal. Some like to talk about their grief, while others prefer to handle it silently. Encourage your teen to join a grief peer group, write in a journal or sit down and talk. Helping a teen work through his grief is often a process of trial and error as you discover your teen’s changing needs.