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Your Kids Are Grieving Right Now. Here’s How to Help Them.

grief

As a therapist who focuses on anxiety and who works with adults, kids, and adolescents, I am hearing about the struggles for both my clients and their families during this chaotic time. People are experiencing so many symptoms that have been exacerbated by our isolation, constant togetherness, and relentless responsibilities — clients are reporting an increase in irritability, snapping at family members, and generally being annoyed. (Sound familiar?)

People are trying to put words to what we are, collectively, experiencing at this moment, and a theme I am seeing is that we are grieving. Yes, grief is typically associated with a loss of a loved one, but that is not all encompassing. There are three types of grief that can help explain our current rollercoaster of emotions:  

Imaginary grief is the feeling associated with the loss of a life we imagined. Real grief is defined by what we have already lost. Anticipatory grief is the anticipation of loss that is coming.  

None of these three terms are associated only with death, and while death is a horrific product of this pandemic, it is not the only loss occurring. Parents have lost the career goals being worked on, as well as the childcare we relied upon. Children have lost fun times with friends, sports achievements, and so many celebrations.

It is very hard to experience grief firsthand, but it can be even harder to witness a loved one grieving — especially our children. Sometimes, as parents, we just want to help our kids by trying to make their negative feelings go away. As a result, some of us minimize or brush off some very real experiences because the pain of holding our children through such loss can feel like too much. We might also find ourselves becoming annoyed at them for their (normal) oppositional behaviors because our plates are so full. 

Is your child experiencing grief? That grief might appear as different emotions and behaviors, including:

Anger: You might find your child yelling at you or being short tempered

Sadness: Your child might be isolating in their bedroom or displaying less motivation.

Anxiety: Your child might start having panic attacks or expressing irritability.

Fortunately, there are tried-and-true strategies to help your kids cope. When you notice the above, do the following:

1. Label the feelings. If your kid is snappy — as older kids and teens are wont to be — give them space, but also offer to them that they might be feeling angry due to missing out on time with friends. If a younger child is having a tantrum, mention to them that this is a sad and scary time, and you understand they are expressing these feelings.  

2. Validate ALL THE FEELINGS. There is no right or wrong way to feel during this time. We need to allow our children and ourselves to feel it all. Encourage them to cry, yell, punch a pillow, lay on the couch — anything that allows the feelings to move through them. When we do not allow feelings to move through us they get stuck in our bodies and can erupt later either in physical aggression or possible self-harm.

3. Give each other space. Currently we are with our families nonstop. For teens especially, this is developmentally off balance — teens are meant to be with their peers during this time and separating from their parents. Allow your teen to communicate with their friends. In the current generation, this might mean via texting, video games, or social media. We need to allow this in some capacity, so rules may need to be loosened. For yourself, make sure you separate yourself; if you can’t do that physically, then engross yourself with a book or a TV show. For younger children, institute quiet time, which can help to calm the sensory overload happening due to all the screen time. 

4. Plan for next time the feeling shows up and is acted out towards others or yourself. Develop a code word for a feeling. For example, if you are feeling angry, instead of lashing out at your kid for spilling their drink, make a code word that explains you need space. Your family can all share each other’s code words. Explain that next time you feel the anger rising you will be taking some space. Instead of yelling, write down the code word and step away. 

5. Create new memories, so you can have some gains alongside the losses. In our family we have been lighting Shabbat candles, making challah, and reciting the blessing over the children every Friday night, which is something we did not do regularly in our hectic lives before. We have also been eating dinner together every night, which was not always possible with our previous schedules. We say our favorite things about the day and “bad favorite” things, which is my daughter’s way of saying “least favorite.”  

6. Be proactive in your self-care. We cannot emotionally survive this if we do not have some self-care. But the trick about self-care is that it cannot be saved for when we are burnt out — we need to do it regularly. Have a workout you do three or four times a week, enjoy your daily coffee with a book, bake your favorite cookies. Anything that allows you to replenish. Encourage your children to establish self-care routines, too — coloring, writing, being outside, anything lifts their moods should be built into the week.

7. Lastly, and more specifically, talk out loud about your losses. Let every member of the family be sad about their missed events and changed plans. Some of the losses might seem easy to brush off, like a dance recital or a missed birthday party, but this is another opportunity to validate that this is really hard and sad. Developmentally, something minor to us will be major to your child. 

The most important note to end on is to be kind to yourself and your children. Your self-care models to them that we are all taking care of ourselves and doing our best during a time that does not have a playbook. 

Header image by Grace Yagel; Illustration by Johanna Svennberg / Getty Images

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