How to support grieving children over the holidays: 5 tips from a child psychologist
For many of us, the holiday season is a happy and joyful time that we look forward to all year. But after experiencing the death of a loved one, the holidays can be a very difficult time, particularly for children. Being a bereaved parent can be especially challenging because it involves dealing with one’s own grief reactions while also managing your child’s grief.
Having worked with many youth who have been significantly impacted by loss – including children whose parents died of COVID – I offer the following five suggestions for how parents and other caregivers can help their grieving children cope with the bereavement-related challenges of the holiday season.
Validate how your child is feeling
Bereaved children often experience a wide range of reactions to the holidays. Some want to talk about the death and how much they miss the deceased person, and others might not want to talk at all. Some kids could be extremely sad and tearful, while others may not show much emotion. There is no right or wrong way for a child to grieve. The most helpful thing you can do as a parent is to validate how your child is feeling and be present and available for them when they do want to talk.
Don’t be afraid to be sad in front of your child
Bereaved parents sometimes worry that they will upset their children by showing their own grief. But it is important for children to see that their parents are human, too. By allowing your child to see you feeling sad (or even crying), you send the message that it is OK to be sad after a loved one dies and, in fact, that this is a normal part of grief. In other words, we need to “feel it to heal it.”
Help your child feel connected to their deceased loved one
The holidays are often a time when children really miss the deceased person and may feel more disconnected from them. A helpful strategy can be for parents to provide their children with opportunities to feel more connected to the person who died. This can include sharing stories about the person, looking at old photos of them or playing videos of them. It might also help to set aside some time during the holidays to recall nice things people may have said at the memorial service or perform volunteer service that helps to honor the deceased person’s memory. For example, you might ask, “Is there anything special you’d like to do during the holidays to remember ___?”
One of the best ways to take care of your children after a death is to take care of yourself. Parents are often so worried about caring for their children and ensuring that the holidays are a happy time for them, they forget to care for themselves. Getting the support you need is just as critical as caring for your child. Doing so not only helps ensure that you will be ready and able to help your child, but it’s also an ideal time to model good self-care, including asking for help if you need it. Getting enough sleep, going for walks or other forms of exercise, eating well and doing things that make you happy can go a long way toward keeping you physically and mentally healthy.
Spot the signs of troubled grief
While most grief reactions are adaptive and represent a natural reflection of the love we had for the person who died, concerned parents and caregivers often want to know how to identify when their child might need additional support. Here are some signs to look for that suggest children could be “stuck” in their grief:
- Significant developmental regressions, seen more frequently in younger children, can involve major changes in sleeping/language/eating habits, which can have a major impact on daily functioning. This can also include the inability to separate from adult caregivers.
- Extreme separation distress can include missing the deceased person so much that they can’t get out of bed in the morning, attend school or complete daily activities.
- Extreme preoccupation with the circumstances of the death can include excessive worries and concerns about the way the person died or even shame or guilt that they were somehow responsible. This can also involve ongoing questions regarding how the person died or wanting to keep returning to the place where they died.
- Avoidance and numbing behavior can include staying away from people, places or things that remind them of the person or the way the person died.
- Risk-taking behavior, which is more likely to appear in adolescents, can include engaging in activities that are dangerous or reckless, such as substance abuse, driving while intoxicated or violent behavior.
Every child grieves differently, and there is no set timeline for grief. But if any of these behaviors are present after six months post-death, are impacting daily functioning or include expressions of self-harm or suicidal thoughts, I encourage parents or caregivers to have the child evaluated by a mental health professional who is well-versed in the assessment and treatment of childhood grief.
Seeking help is an important step toward ensuring that bereaved children enjoy new holiday celebrations while keeping cherished memories of prior holidays with their loved one in their hearts and minds.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis or needs emotional support, the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline provides confidential 24/7 support. Dial 988 or visit 988lifeline.org.
This article was originally published in USA Today and is available on their website here.