Grieving Child Warnings Signs
Indications That a Grieving Child May Need Help
Faces of Children’s Grief – There is no one way to grieve
- Everyone grieves differently. Bereaved children and adults are often told that they should grieve in a series of sequential stages, or that at a certain time they should “get over” it. The reality is there is not just one, right way to grieve.
- Bereavement is a process of adaptation, not something to “get over.” Grief refers to the painful emotions that happen when someone dies. They range from anger and loneliness to despair and guilt.
- Healthy grieving is painful. There are many different faces of grief. You can’t judge what is going on inside a child by what you see on the outside. A child’s grief, or pain, can only be understood by knowing what the child was like before the death. Although most children have within them the ability to heal, some may need or want additional help.
- How can I tell if my child needs help? Just knowing that a child is hurting is not enough. Talking to your child is the best way to learn about his or her unique grief. Even if your family does not routinely discuss emotions or painful experiences, these conversations are important. Some of the warning signs you should be aware of are described in the “Red Flags” and “Yellow Flags” sections. These might help you determine if your child would benefit from additional help, and may assist you in talking with your child.
Red Flags – Signs that a grieving child needs immediate help
Some behaviors in grieving children are red flags, or emergencies. Immediate help is needed if your child is:
- Hurting himself
- Hurting someone else
- Damaging property
- Self medicating drugs or alcohol
Hurting one’s self or someone else includes:
- Self injury
- Having more “accidents” or getting hurt more than usual
- Saying that he/she wants to die
- Threatening to hurt someone else
- Treating other people badly, so much so that she is losing friends.
- Apparent inability to care for ones basic needs – dressing, eating, getting out of bed, a disregard for one’s personal appearance.
- Constant sadness with little or no break in it.
It is important to remember that some of these warning signs are normal and will resolve themselves, however, if the intensity is interfering with daily functioning your child needs intervention.
Yellow Flags – Signs that a grieving child might need more support
A yellow flag is just like a yellow light: it means caution. Help may be needed if your child:
- Asks for help: Your child indicates he wants additional help.
- Never speaks about the person who died: Your child chooses never to talk about the person who died, even when others bring it up. Your child perceives that she/he has no one that they can talk to about their situation.
- Expresses excessive anger: When someone dies, children (and adults) often feel angry and/or frustrated. That’s okay and healthy. Too much anger or frustration, however, can cause a child to feel overwhelmed or out of control, and that can be unhealthy. Kids need to know anger is okay. It’s just an emotion – what we do with it is important.
- Has physical symptoms that do not have an obvious physical cause: Children who are grieving, like adults, might have physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomach aches. This is normal. You do want to monitor the level of change if there is excessive listlessness or insomnia. If these symptoms persist, take your child to your health care provider. If nothing physical is found to be wrong, and your child continues to have physical symptoms, consider getting additional help.
- Significant changes social interactions: Some children do not interact with friends and family as they did before the death. A period of withdrawal is normal and healthy. If the withdrawal persists and your child does not resume some activities outside of school, talk with him/her. This isolation may be a sign of needing additional help.
- Has dramatic changes in academic performance: Many children’s grades change during the year in which the death occurs. If the grade changes continue into the following academic year, or other changes in performance continue for months, consider that your child may benefit from more help.
- Is overachieving: We tend not to recognize a dramatic increase in performance or participation as a sign of grief because it looks like things are “going well.” Significant changes occur for a reason. It is important to try to understand the reasons for any dramatic change, regardless of whether it is perceived as a positive or negative.
- Guilt: Almost all children feel guilt or regret about something related to the death. “I didn’t get to say goodbye.” “We had a huge fight.” Many children need information about why the death was not their fault. Guilt is the one emotion it’s important to ask about: “Most children feel guilt about something related to the death.” Some believe the death was their fault.
- Fear and worry: New fears often emerge after a death. Your child might be afraid that someone else will die, or worry that he will get sick, or be left alone. When fear and worry keep your child from doing what he/she wants to do, he/she might benefit from other help. Their worry is that they are different from their friends.
- Anxiety: Most children will be anxious after someone dies. For many, the anxiety decreases within months. For some, anxiety persists, causing behavior changes, and might interfere with your child’s interactions with others.
How Do I Get More Help For A Grieving Child?
There are professionals who can help, including counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers. Health care providers or counselors may be able to refer you to professionals who specialize in childhood bereavement. Often the best referrals are from families who have benefited from bereavement counseling.
What to look for in a Bereavement Professional
- Ask about the professional’s specific education and experience with bereaved children.
- Ask how many bereaved children he/she has treated & if there is an age group they feel comfortable counseling.
- Ask what format the bereavement support will take (group or individual) and how often and how long each session will run.
- Ask what model of counseling they use (Art Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) & decide if it is a mode you feel comfortable using
- Ask about insurance coverage or if they use a sliding fee scale
Any professional who tells or encourages a child to “get over the death” or “grow up” is unlikely to help your child.