Children deal with loss much differently than adults. While adults are able to voice their feelings to others, which helps them in the grieving process, children express grief in different ways. Instead of talking to family and friends, journaling, praying, etc, children may use art, play, and imagination to express their emotions. Even if a child appears to be handling the loss well, there are things that caregivers can do to help them understand and deal with their big emotions.
Creative Therapy: a doorway to a grieving child
"Toys are like words for children and play is their language. Adults talk about their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Children use toys to explore their experiences and express what they think and how they feel.” from Child-Parent Relationship Therapy Treatment Manual
One method for helping a child through a difficult time is play therapy. Trained psychologists will use visual storytelling and role-play methods to address grief, including creative visualization, puppets, sand play, dolls, and action figures, or even dancing and music.
Play helps children develop numerous attributes such as language and math skills, creativity, cognitive and social development, and so much more. In other words, caregivers who want to help can get out some toys and spend some quality time with them.
You do have the option of looking for licensed play therapists for your child, teen, or even yourself - they work with all ages. However, you can also spend some quality time with your child. Here are some things you can do to stimulate emotions and help them to open up:
- Tell stories you know about your loved ones
- Take turns telling stories from the imagination
- Create a miniature playground out of sand or playdough
- Use puppets to create a dialogue between you
- Color or do artwork together
Talking about death
We all know that stuffing emotions and not talking about or dealing with them can lead to long-term emotional challenges and negative coping mechanisms. Not only does it invalidate the very real feelings we are having, but it can also cause us to become afraid of or detached from our emotions - we can stay stuck in grief for a long time. It is critical to learn how to deal with emotions at a young age.
Some ways to help children overcome avoidance:
- Don’t avoid the subject of death and dying (your willingness to talk openly signals to them that discussing this is ok and normal)
- If you don’t know, it's okay to say that
- Tell stories of when you dealt with similar emotions
- Be open about your own feelings and emotions, but don’t pile your big emotions on top of theirs
- Watch old videos, look at photo albums, and share memories together
Know when to seek help
If the child has experienced someone close to them passing away, it could be more traumatic than you know. Look for signs like difficulty sleeping, losing interest in daily activities that they typically enjoy, loss of appetite, some separation anxiety, or other ways to attract attention from you. In some situations like these, a licensed therapist or physician can help you to diagnose and address it.
Even though children have less life experience, they still feel plenty of emotions that are jam-packed into a tiny body. Dealing with grief and loss is a journey and children need adults that they can rely on to help them navigate it.
It’s Okay: an Activity Journal for Kids
It’s Okay is an activity journal filled with special coloring pages and activities that are meant to foster feelings and expression, whether they are positive or negative, bad or good… happy or sad… it is meant to guide you and your child, to give them tools to be able to problem-solve, understand and even manage their own emotions – no matter what the situation.
The activities in It’s Okay are meant to be completed with your child. Find a time and place where you can help your child complete the tasks without any distractions. Clear off the table or the floor, turn off all of the electronics, and sit down together. Grab crayons, pencils or whatever you have on hand. You might find that doing the activities every day or every week at the same time helps your child to know what to expect.
Remember, these exercises are meant to help you see your child and not the problems they are facing. As they go through the pages, let your child lead. We hope that you will find some peace and healing in knowing that whatever you are both feeling.
For adults, take a look at Creative Therapy for Grief and download a free healing journal.