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Child and Adolescent Grief

Julia Pemberton

Registered Psychologist
Perth, Western Australia

Grief is a normal, natural and inevitable response to loss, and can affect every part of our life. It is varied and different for everyone, including children and adolescents.

Common grief reactions in children and adolescents

  • Shock and disbelief
  • Anxiety (including separation anxiety)
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Sadness and longing
  • Anger and acting-out
  • Guilt, self-reproach and shame
  • Withdrawal
  • Bedwetting
  • Changes in eating pattern
  • School problems
  • Physical complaints

Children's age and development influences their understanding of death.

5 years and under
Very young children are often unable to understand the permanence of death and can anticipate the return of the person who died. They think in very concrete terms. Avoid metaphors such as 'gone to sleep', 'at rest' or 'lost' as this may be confusing for children who can take these terms literally. 'Magical thinking' at this age also may lead them to believe that their thoughts, feelings, wishes and actions can cause what happens to them and others. Such thinking can lead a child to believe they may have in some way contributed to the death.

5 to 10 years
They understand that death is irreversible and universal. Their understanding of death includes awareness of external causes (eg accidents) and internal causes (eg disease). There is a shift in the child's willingness and ability to express their feelings.

10 years to adolescence
Their concept of death becomes more abstract, and they are able to understand more of the long-term effects of loss. As adolescents are in the process of becoming more independent of their parents and other central figures in their lives, they can feel reluctant to show signs of mourning as it reinforces a sense of dependence and vulnerability.

Young people grieve in doses. That is, they often break grief up into bearable amounts and these can manifest in intense outbursts. It's likely that they will experience a multitude of emotions that may come and go in waves.

Supporting your child or adolescent

  • Give age-appropriate explanations
  • Avoid abstract explanations
  • Make time for questions and conversations
  • Be patient and provide clear, consistent answers
  • Don't be afraid to ask the young person what they are thinking or feeling
  • Look at photos and reminders. Help them compile a scrapbook, album or memory box.
  • Visit the grave or resting place
  • Encourage expression through drawing, play, music, storytelling, letters, and poetry
  • Allow the young person to participate in grief rituals (eg attending the funeral)
  • Model healthy expressions of grief in an open manner
  • Resist trying to fix young people's pain by avoidance or distraction
  • Maintain routines and standards of discipline as much as possible
  • Avoid unnecessary separations
  • Discuss possible anxiety about something happening to their parents or themselves

Julia Pemberton
Registered Psychologist
Phone: 0407 772 410

Mt Lawley Counselling
13 Alvan Street Mt Lawley
Western Australia 6050

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