After Kathleen* broke up with her long-term boyfriend, her tween twin boys reacted in ways she didn’t expect. They seemed withdrawn, lashed out at her for trivial things and became borderline obsessed with extracurricular activities.
Caught up in her own emotions over the end of a two-year relationship, Kathleen didn’t at first realize her sons were experiencing their own sense of loss.
“It took a while for me to register that they missed him, too, and that I had to set my own feelings aside to help them process the fact that he would no longer be in our lives,” Kathleen says.
According to clinical licensed social worker Amanda Be, it’s normal for kids to go through a range of emotions upon losing someone close.
Whether they’re missing a favorite aunt who’s moved away, a childhood friend who’s left town or a parental figure who’s no longer in the picture, children experience strong feelings from denial to depression.
“Every situation is different, but in today’s world, children and teens are dealing with a lot of transition,” says Be, who runs a private counseling practice out of Grosse Pointe Woods. “Navigating them can be tricky for kids, and there’s always a sense of loss when they happen.”
It’s important for parents to acknowledge these emotions and help kids through the grieving process so they can deal with loss in a healthy way in the short-term – as well as throughout their lives.
“There are different types of relationships and there are different types of loss, but each type evokes emotions. Sometimes they are easy to get over, but sometimes they stick with you for a long time,” Be says.
“Allow children to have their feelings, be empathetic and realize they are experiencing that sense of loss.”
Five stages of grief
Many of us are familiar with the five stages of grief individuals go through upon the death of a loved one. Identified by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, they include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. More specifically:
- Denial is characterized by numbness, shock and insistence on business as usual. This stage can serve as a protection mechanism allowing people to block out grief they can’t handle at the time.
- Anger involves questioning “why,” blaming others and oneself and holding onto the familiar emotion of anger before delving deeper into the uncharted territory of grief.
- Bargaining is when individuals may express a desire to go back in time and change the past. They may ask themselves “if only” and “what if,” contemplating how to avoid the pain of the present.
- Depression is marked by withdrawal, sadness and hopelessness. This stage can last a long time depending on the closeness of the relationship and circumstances of the loss.
- Acceptance is when, finally, individuals come to understand the loss is permanent, and find hope to move on to new relationships while treasuring their memories.
According to Be, these emotions also apply to people of all ages dealing with loss in general. However, the end of a relationship isn’t as clear-cut as death.
“Death is final. That person’s not there, so the grief can end at some point,” says Be, who spent 10 years as a social worker for Port Huron Public Schools before opening her practice earlier this year. “With the loss of a relationship, the grief process gets a little trickier, because sometimes they still see that person or know that person is there.”
When it comes to your child, perhaps a friend they grew up with has chosen another peer group but still goes to the same school and is connected through social media. Maybe a relative has transferred across the country and can no longer be present like she used to, but short phone calls and visits spark the desire for more.
In Kathleen’s case, as much as her sons may want to, it’s simply no longer appropriate for them to keep in contact with her ex.
“They have to acknowledge they’re no longer wanted or able to reach out to that person they’ve lost,” Be says. “There may still be a connection, but not that connection they’re wanting.”
Children and adolescents will experience the five stages of grief in their own way, Be says. The emotions are not necessarily felt in order, or for the same duration of time – and children may go back and forth between stages as they process their grief.
What to watch for
During the denial stage, it’s business as usual, and children may throw themselves into routine while telling themselves everything is the same as always. In part, this is a defense mechanism that allows kids to deal only with what they can handle at the time. At this point, they may not mention the person they’ve lost or even realize there’s a void in their lives.
Next comes anger, an emotion more familiar than grief. During this phase, children may be mad at the person they’ve lost or may direct their rage at someone else – a classmate whom they think stole their friend, or the parent whom they perceive drove their loved one away. At this stage, expect lashing out, blame and outbursts that may seem random. There may also be behavioral problems at school.
During the bargaining stage, children may start to wonder what they can change about themselves or their circumstances to get the person back. They may reminisce about what went wrong or express a desire to turn back time.
Depression may follow, with symptoms like withdrawal, sadness, low moods, crying, loss of appetite or excessive appetite, and loss of sleep or excessive sleep.
Finally comes acceptance, when children realize that the person they cared about is no longer in their lives. While they might always miss that individual, they become ready to forge new fulfilling relationships.
How to help
If you know your child has experienced the loss of an important person in his or her life, clinical licensed social worker Shakari Harris suggests tuning in for signs of the grieving process.
“It’s important for parents to be aware of change in behavior,” says Harris, of Dennis, Moye, Branstetter & Associates in Bloomfield Hills.
If you notice signs that your son or daughter is grieving, what should you do? According to Harris, communication is key.
“It’s important for your child to be able to share their perspective,” she says. “Talk and listen. Share stories of the person who was lost to gain understanding of how that person impacted the child.”
If your child naturally likes to write, encourage her to journal about her friend or loved one. Or, if she prefers, let her express herself through writing, art or play. Another option available is animal therapy for kids, which lets kids connect and heal with a selfless creature.
Be truthful, too. Answer questions honestly and understand that sharing information helps kids understand what happened and what to expect.
If it’s a situation like Kathleen’s, with the loss of a boyfriend, don’t be afraid to share insight on why the relationship didn’t work.
“Sometimes people feel talking to their child is inappropriate and they shouldn’t have deep conversations, but kids are really emotionally intelligent. They feel energy and see when their parent is down,” Harris says. “Communicating with them can keep them from blaming themselves or having the wrong impression of what’s going on.”
Parents who are grieving as well may need to get professional help so they can be present for their children. And there’s always the option of taking the child to a therapist or school social worker.
The good news is that kids are resilient. Once they get through their pain, they will be able to treasure good memories they shared with their loved one and be better equipped to deal with loss in the future.
At that point, sharing your memories can also help. Talk about your friend or family member – what you loved and what you miss – with your kids.
“As they get good at expressing themselves as loss happens, it gets easier to identify those feelings and to not feel ashamed of them and then move forward from them,” Be says.
And, above all, give affection. Let your child know he is safe and secure. Don’t encourage kids to “get over it.” Instead, help them “get through it” together.
*Last name withheld for privacy.