Children and traumatic grief

We don’t necessarily experience a trauma reaction when a loved one dies but we might and if we do, it is important to understand the workings of trauma. One child in a family might have a trauma reaction to the death of their parent while their brother or sister does not. Children’s symptoms of trauma can be confused with misbehaving so it is even more important to know what to look out for and what to do.


Definition of a traumatic event


Trauma is one of those over-used and misunderstood terms, so here is a definition from Dr Claudia Herbert, in her book Overcoming Traumatic Stress, which draws on the definition used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual:


“Usually, an event would be considered traumatic if a person had experienced or been a witness to an event that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury”. She goes on to say, “This threat could have been so overwhelming that the person would have experienced intense fear, helplessness or horror, at least some of the time during the event”.


Typically we think of traumatic events as being natural disasters, plane crashes, terrorist attacks, someone’s house burning down or someone being the victim of a violent robbery. However, bereaved people have reported trauma reactions in response to finding their partner’s body, or the way in which they were told their partner had died or from nursing their partner through a particularly painful and prolonged end of life.


What causes a trauma reaction


Why some people experience these things as traumatising and others do not, is outwith the individual’s control. Possible causes are our genetic make-up, earlier life experiences and the amount of stress or security we felt in our lives at the time of the events. But the same person might find the death of one parent traumatising and simply experience grief and sadness about the death of the other parent. It is not a reflection of the depth of the relationship and it’s not a character flaw, it’s just that human beings are complicated things.


Children and trauma


Children are generally seen as more resilient than adults to grief and trauma, but this will vary considerably. They live more in the here and now than adults, and so are less likely to dwell on what might have been, but some do dwell on things. They are also more easily distracted than adults, so can be deeply upset one moment and off playing with friends a few moments later, while others are not.


However, their developing brains are more susceptible to the damaging effects of prolonged stress. Our bodies are designed to cope with short bursts of stress hormones, to help us escape danger. Our bodies are not meant to be flooded with stress hormones for long periods of time. So too many stress hormones in the womb or in early years can make a child more sensitive to trauma.


There is also the fact that how children interpret an event might not become clear, even to themselves, until many years later, and may change at different stages in their life. At some point they might feel angry at their parent for leaving them; scared that they’ve been abandoned; guilty for not feeling more grief or even lucky that they’ve had a chance to toughen up more than their friends. They might feel all four in the space of four minutes or they might feel an entirely different set of feelings.


The response of the adults and caregivers around them is the biggest influence on how they understand the world and on mitigating the effects of stressful events. A supportive, listening, loving environment is best but even then, like adults, some will be more susceptible to trauma than others.


Symptoms of traumatic grief in children


The US’s National Child Traumatic Stress Network, says, each child grieves in their own way and reactions can vary depending on their age, personality and their ability to understand death.


A traumatic grief response happens when “children get “stuck” in negative images, thoughts and feeling about the death.” And the NCTSN says this can be seen if they are finding it “harder to do schoolwork, behave at home, and interact well with friends.”


Where children have been raised in a household where there is or was domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse, neglect or for whatever reason just a regular sense of danger, such as in a violent neighbourhood or during a time of war or conflict, then the death of a parent can add trauma on trauma.


The Child Welfare Information Gateway has a good booklet you can download as a pdf, called Parenting A Child Who Has Experienced Trauma. In it, they say ”When your child is behaving in a way that is unexpected and seems irrational or extreme, he or she may be experiencing a trauma trigger”


Other common signs of trauma in children are: poor concentration, irritability, clinginess, disobedience, withdrawal, acting younger than their age e.g. thumbsucking or bedwetting, dwelling on the traumatic event or denying it ever happened, getting into fights, frequently being tired, stomach-aches or headaches.


Possible symptoms:

  • Poor concentration
  • Irritability
  • Clinginess
  • Disobedience
  • Withdrawal
  • Acting younger than their age e.g. thumbsucking or bedwetting
  • Dwelling on the traumatic event or denying it ever happened
  • Getting into fights
  • Frequently being tired
  • Stomach-aches
  • Headaches
  • Behaving in a way that is unexpected and seems irrational or extreme


What you can do


Like in the airplane safety advice that tells you to put your oxygen mask on first, before putting the mask on your child, the best way to support your child is to ensure you are well-supported too. You are already dealing with your own grief and with huge practical changes and challenges to your everyday life. You might be dealing with a trauma reaction of your own. If your child feels as if it is his or her job to also protect you, this adds to their problems and is a harmful burden on small shoulders.


So reach out to the many adult and child bereavement charities around, enlist family and friends if they’re good or find yourself an understanding counsellor to lean on if your people are not so good.


Age-appropriate honesty


We are lucky to live in an age where people are now much more open than parents were told they should be, one or two generations back. Children working through grief or experiencing a trauma reaction need to know the truth about what happened and what is going on in their lives now. But it should be an age-appropriate truth, so make sure the rest of the family is on-message.


Donna Schuurman of The Dougy Centre says, in Talking with Children About Tragic Events:


“In over 30 years of providing grief support to thousands of children and teens at The Dougy Centre for Grieving Children & Families, we have never heard a child say, “I’m glad I was lied to.” Many, however, struggle with anger and lack of trust towards parents or other adults who lied to them. When we don’t tell the truth, they learn that we cannot be trusted.”


She goes on to say:


“Being able to talk openly and honestly with your children about tragic events and other losses, creates a foundation of trust, enabling them to come to you in the future with their questions, fears and concerns.”


Routine, reassurance and remembering


Beyond talking honestly, there are other things you can do to help. The NCTSN has a series of factsheets you can download for children of different ages but across them all there are common themes: routine, reassurance and remembering together.


Children are soothed by predictability. The sooner they can be back at school with their usual classmates and friends, doing their usual afterschool activities and having the same old mealtimes and bedtimes again, the better.


Kids will worry if you’re going to die soon or if they are going to die soon or if nothing is safe anymore and the traumatic event will be a recurring event. You need to be honest and tell them that everyone dies but reassure them that most people don’t die until they’re very old.


You’re bound to be worrying yourself about what would happen to them if anything happened to you, so make arrangements, then tell them about it. Telling them that you’re not going to die will just confuse them. So long as it’s true, you can say something like, “It is extremely unlikely that I’ll die for another forty or fifty years, but just in case I do, I’ve asked your aunt Carol to look after you and she says she’d make sure you’re taken good care of at her house.”


Most importantly though, reassure them that traumatic events are very rare and that the world is usually a safe place and that you’re watching out for them.


And bring the family together to remember together. Many grieving families find it helps to have a special time each week, when everyone gathers round to talk about their mum or dad. This makes it okay to get on with enjoying life at other times, though of course it should always be okay to talk about their parent any time.


Make a point of remembering difficult time too, in a safe way. When a parent dies a child might feel guilty for an argument they had with the parent or unsure about whether they can sit in mum or dad’s chair. You have to make it clear that all of this is okay and that they have not done anything wrong. Make sure your child doesn’t feel guilty or responsible for anything, as children are inclined to do.


In Option B, Sheryl Sandberg writes about her and her children’s acts of taking back the things they enjoyed doing together, and says: “Tragedy breaks down your door and takes you prisoner. To escape takes effort and energy. Seeking joy after facing adversity is taking back what was stolen from you.”


Trauma in the news


Grieving adults can find news stories of death and suffering upsetting so it’s natural to want to protect grieving children from these stories. In an interview for the BBC website, researcher in child psychiatry, Dr Bernadka Dubicka said, “Parents can’t shield children from these events completely. The reality is that children and young people are bombarded by 24/7 news”


However, you can limit the amount of screen time they have when they’re at home and talk to them about any upsetting stories. In the same BBC article, consultant clinical psychologist, Emma Citron said, “Give children basic facts, tell them what it is they want to know, ask them what they would like to know and then give them access to that, “ But she goes on to say, “Avoid nasty details.” And, “You don’t want to be describing the scene, describing the bloodshed, describing what it looked like, showing them images – I would be avoid all of that, because that can traumatise the child.”


I asked Emma Citron if she had any advice for children experiencing a trauma reaction. She said: “It’s mainly that they will feel potentially especially sensitive around how any news information is put across, so it’s worth watching it for how the story is covered in the press.” She also said that children will be more sensitive if the story is about the same kind of thing that led to the death of their parent, saying: “I’d take the lead from the youngster as to whether they wish to watch or hear news items relating to similar events. Some will say they don’t want to be treated differently and some will say it makes them sad or anxious”


She also highlights that some children might feel sensitive to mass tragedies, “and would prefer that people didn’t discuss Manchester or Barcelona around them” but others would want to share in their friends’ understanding of these events.


Underlining the golden rule for trying to help kids, or anyone else for that matter, Emma Citron says, “as always, take the lead from the child and ask them what they prefer.”


This summer we’ve seen the Princes William and Harry talk openly about their feelings after their mother’s death. They have shown how much they were both deeply affected by what happened but not destroyed by it or defined by it. One in thirty kids will experience the death of a parent and a proportion of them will experience a trauma reaction. Other kids in their class will be affected by trauma from other causes. None of us can protect our children from all that we want to protect them from, but we can make use of the growing amount of information and support available to help us understand and live with the most difficult of things in life.


First published in Widows and Widowers magazine Issue 16

Image by / Rohappy


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