Well, the calendar flipped and our world has not magically changed. Many of us are in lockdown again and navigating prolonged school closures. Uncertainty and confusion continues to fill our newsfeeds and we’re carrying the stress of last year into 2021.
The kids in our lives are feeling it all too. Parents are understandably feeling a little lost when it comes to helping their children through all of this so let’s talk about how grief shows up in school-aged kids.
We were born instinctively knowing how to complete our emotions. Think of a toddler you know…they’ll cry when they’re upset, they’ll express rage in the form of tantrums, and seek comfort in loving arms. No one has to tell them to do these things.
Then society steps in.
We learn that tantrums are unacceptable behaviour but rarely were we shown constructive ways to express our rage. “Using your words” doesn’t complete the stress response cycle necessary to allow our body to move on and for the emotion to dissipate. Little boys especially are taught that crying is inappropriate because men are supposed to be tough and stoic. (More on men and grief coming soon.)
Then we teach them the myths that we were taught growing up like “it will get better with time”, or “if you’re going to cry, go to your room”, or “be strong and soldier on.”
Because of this, our losses begin piling up in childhood (like adding rocks to a backpack) and since we don’t know what to do with all our grief we lug it around from one year to the next. Carrying around all this crap means we’re ALL EXHAUSTED and tired and anxious and less able to cope with the next thing that comes along.
The definition of grief is “the conflicting feelings caused by the change or end of a familiar pattern of behaviour”. When you think of grief this way, you can see alllllllll the times we encounter loss as children.
From the loss of a binkie, blanket or bottle to lost friendships in middle school, to not making the soccer team. Or the death of a beloved pet or grandparent. To the more intangible losses we’ve experienced in the last year like the loss of a school routine, holidays that were missing the usual people or traditions, or lost birthday celebrations with friends.
2020 was hard on kids too.
What losses do you remember from your childhood? Were you ever taught how to effectively process the loss? A lot of us weren’t, which is why this is such an important discussion because, well, let’s switch gears for a second (cue the super deep movie trailer voice over)…Imagine a world where tough emotions were welcomed instead of dismissed, and discussed versus silenced.
Imagine if we listened, deeply, to each other and held each other’s pain with compassion and empathy. No judgment, no critique, just honouring what is.
Seriously, imagine that world for a minute.
Does it feel a bit like a salve for your soul? Does it give you hope for the future?
Good, because it starts by teaching our children how to honour their grief. So let’s discuss some generalized ‘ages and stages’ (because we know grief is not linear and doesn’t happen in neat and tidy stages).
Ages 4 – 9
- Kids often engage in “magical thinking” where they believe their thoughts or wishes can cause things to happen. They can feel irrationally responsible and guilty about the loss (i.e. divorce)
- Kids might be curious about death
- They might personify death as monsters or ghosts
- At this stage kids might express their grief through frustration and anger (i.e. easily giving up on homework) or they can regress into behaviours you thought they’d outgrown
- They might experience sleep disturbances like nightmares or trouble falling asleep or changes in appetite.
- They may or may not understand the finality of death.
What can help at this age? Symbolic play using stories and drawings. Of course if you’re concerned about any changes in your child’s behaviour speak to a medical professional.
Ages 9 -12
- At this age kids understand the finality of death but don’t believe it will happen to them (lots of grown-ups feel this way too). Understanding the finality of death might bring about the fear that a caregiver will die. Depending on the child and his/her relationship with the caregiver they could become clingy or distant.
- They know how to express their feelings but may choose not to. No one wants to be labelled a cry-baby or too sensitive so they’ll say they’re fine even if they aren’t (fine = feelings internalized, not expressed).
- You might see problems at school (social or academic), they might act out or withdraw from friends.
- They could become concerned with how others are reacting to stress or there could be overwhelming concern with their body.
- Disturbances with sleeping/ eating are common at this age as well.
- Kids at this age can be involved in giving input into funerals, memorials, or how to remember the person they lost on birthdays or the anniversary of their death.
Kids of all ages (and some adults too) often engage in STERBS (short-term energy-relieving behaviours) because it’s easier than feeling our feelings. Think of a tea kettle, all the heat and energy building up inside until the steam shoots out the spout and the whistle blows.
In kids that can look like angry outbursts at siblings sometimes for no reason. They’ll binge video games like Roblox or Minecraft the way we binge Netflix. It can look like sneaking junk food or refusing food they used to love.
Your child’s age, temperament, and personality will affect the ways they grieve as will the relationship they had with the deceased, the reaction of caregivers around them, their relationship with those caregivers and the type of death.
What can you do?
Kids are like sponges, they’ll soak up whatever we’re doing.
Listen to your kids. Tell the truth. Let feelings be normal and natural responses.
And go first, be willing to have open, honest conversations.
Have conversations around how YOU’RE feeling about COVID, social justice issues, or personal losses. Model learning more. And knowing when to step back. Model asking for help. And graciously accepting help when it’s offered. Talk about how you’re taking care of your mental health, invite them to try your practices or help them find ones of their own.
When it comes to death recall your favourite memories about the person you lost so they know it’s okay to talk about them. And ask for their favourite memories in return.
Remember there is nothing to fix here. There are no bad emotions, all emotions are meant to be felt and seen and heard. Our grief deserves our compassion not our avoidance and the same is true for the grief our kids are carrying.
All that to say, it starts with us. If we want to create a world with more love and kindness, if we want to help unpack the rocks from our backpack of grief so we can reclaim our energy and our joy…it starts with us. We need to be brave and vulnerable and willing to have these awkward conversations with our kids so we can all process our emotions more effectively and navigate an ever-changing world with greater ease and clarity.
p.s. I’m putting the finishing touches on my new Children & Grief course. It’s a video series filmed with my wise and compassionate friend, Colleen Mousseau (she’s a child psychologist). Along with the videos you’ll receive worksheets and tips for talking to your kids about grief and loss. You can sign up here to be put on my email list and learn more once it’s ready.