Grief is a process that is experienced by all people, regardless of their age. The grief reaction is generated by the death or any significant loss that is typically distinctive for each child and may create a special subsequent development of the child. Grief among children is expressed through the various feelings such as sadness, loneliness, anxiety, numbness, self-blame, regret, fear, guilt, and anger, which may lead to a decline in class performance, and may even affect their development. Some of the approaches that could be applied to help a grieving child include: open communication, art therapy, bibliotherapy and support. In addition, counseling can be done through the various techniques usage, such as peer-to-peer, individual, group, and family therapy.
Grief is viewed as a complicated process that affects people of all ages (Leighton, 2008). However, despite the fact that children are always considered resilient, it is important to note that they are innocent victims who need adequate counseling to help them cope with the periods of loss, as it significantly impacts their development (Peterson et al., 2008). It is therefore the responsibility of adults to provide counseling to their tender minds (Henderson & Thompson, 2007). Most of the time, such periods are assumed as momentary situations without understanding that they are too complex to grasp for children (Wilkinson et al., 2007 & Golden, 2002). This is the reason why it is so significant to provide special attention to them, to help them deal with the grief in a healthy way and move ahead with the good understanding of the complex emotions and feelings. This paper seeks to examine some of the empirically-based approaches to counseling grieving children.
How Children Grieve
Conservative estimations show that about 6 % of all children around the world have lost their parent to death, while other estimations show that more than 20% did (Golden, 2002). Including siblings, relatives, and close friends who have died indicates that there is countless amount of children who have faced the grief. Moreover, some children are also living without full care of their parents, because of other reasons, like divorce and incarceration. Children grieve differently as compared to the adults, in terms of duration, intensity, and expression (Golden, 2002). Some researches indicate that children often tend to move in and out from the deep feelings, instead of maintaining high levels of a single emption for longer periods (Golden, 2002). Thus, when a child is laughing or playing, it doesn’t mean that the grief is over.
However, it is important to note that the grief reaction generated by the death or any significant loss is typically distinctive for every child and may create a special subsequent development of the child (Henderson & Thompson, 2007). Children may go through a roller coaster of emotions, expressing such feelings as confusion, sadness, loneliness, anxiety, numbness, self-blame, regret, fear, guilt and anger (Henderson & Thompson, 2007). At the same time, children’s expression of grief may involve retire into their shell and feeling fatigue, while others can react by lashing out, peeving, getting into the troubles (Golden, 2002). Young children may return to bed wetting, thumb sucking, and start to behave like they are always seeking for attention. Experiencing difficulties with sleep is also common for young children.. In addition, most of the grieving children experience a decline in their class performance or even lose interest in favorable activities and hobbies; on the other hand, some children try to do everything perfect, passing through their grief (Golden, 2002). Quite often, grieving children feelg that they are different and isolated from the rest of the children, as they think that nobody understands the situation they are in (Henderson & Thompson, 2007). Basically, children’s grief may cause psychological (cognitive or emotional), social, behavioral, spiritual, and physical dimensions, which may be expressed in various ways.
However,it is worth noting that when a child does not have clear understanding of the reasons that prevent to the loss (Betz & Thorngren, 2006). For instance, children, who may not have a clear understanding of what is death, may want to know and seek for clarifications of what being dead means, what happens with the dead, or the activities the dead people engage in (Golden, 2002). It is important to note that children do not necessarily express their grief in words. In addition, children’s grief recurs at different periods, associated with developmental milestones or new events in their lives (Betz & Thorngren, 2006). As Golden, (2002) noted, it is also important to understand that children tend to not only grieve for the primary loss, but for the secondary losses that come after too, including changes in family dynamics, schedules, and routines, having to move to a new house or school, and changes in family finances. All these implications, caused by death or other considerable losses, contain significant effects that impact children.
Developing Concepts of Death in Children
A scholarly debate was once brought up regarding whether or not children mourn after ones death (Betz & Thorngren, 2006; Peterson et al., 2008). This debate was partly grounded on the claims regarding the inability of children to clearly understand the concept of death. This was also generated from the theoretical models obtained from empirical studies conducted on bereaved adults. These models hypothesized that mourning entailed universal patterns that were believed to result in goals such as completion or resolution (Betz & Thorngren, 2006). However, these claims have been challenged over the recent years, for instance, mourning is now seen as entailing various active processes in terms of tasks in dealing with grief and loss.
The concept of death can be explained to children in various ways, just the way life can be explained. It is important to realize that both life and death belong to the same continuum, referred to as a lifetime (Golden, 2002). Basically, there are four key concepts, developmentally linked that are often associated with death that contain significant relevance to children (Golden, 2002). However, their impact differs depending on the developmental maturity and the age of the child. These concepts are explained below:
The death is often misunderstood by the young children and could turn out to be a devastating experience. This may result into some retrievals of fear, insecurity, and anxiety, especially in children below the age of two years, since their emotional conditions are still underdeveloped (Henderson & Thompson, 2007). Therefore, they may demand more attention, require a security item, engage in childish talk or regress to cope.
It is important to come to understanding that death is actually final point and something that happens with the lapse of time. The viewpoint about the death varies among people depending on their age. Children between the ages of two and four consider death as something reversible (Robert, 2009). It is important to create understanding of death finality among children. As the child continues to grow, the view that death is reversible is replaced with the final and irreversible concept, which occurs at the age from seven to nine years. However, it is worth noting that death’s finality is something that people tend to struggle with throughout the process of life. Some adults also think they may reunite with their departed ones through dreams (Leighton, 2008).
It is also important to realize that religious beliefs, culture, and family influence the finality concept (Robert, 2009). Some religions depict death as moving to a better place near God. This gives comfort to the people. Some cultures have faith in reincarnation, thus influencing the finality concept.
Inevitability in death means understanding that all living things will eventually die, which implies that death is a natural part of life. In order to help children to understand this concept, they can be encouraged to realize death in other living creatures, particularly those that have shorter life cycles compared to mankind (Henderson & Thompson, 2007). According to Golden, (2002) this will expose the child to the inevitability of death as depicted by nature.
The understanding of the children regarding the cause of death has to be explored to shed light on misconceptions and misinformation and tackle queries as to what or who is responsible for death (Betz & Thorngren, 2006). Children come to realize that death is something that has a logical cause between the ages of five and nine, as they are able to recognize the physical causes of death basing on their life experiences (Peterson et al., 2008). However, it is important to note that younger children are more vulnerable to misconceptions. For example, young children may consider death as something that takes people away, and may therefore personify it as a scary stature, which makes it difficult for them to have a clear understanding of the cause of death. Therefore children should be provided with simple, accurate, and honest information regarding the cause of death to allow them to cope with. The explanations provided should be consistent with cultural and family beliefs and values, as this forms their philosophy regarding death (Henderson & Thompson, 2007).
Counseling a Grieving Child
When examining the interventions, two main approaches are often used in the process of bereavement issues that children are going through. These include a client-centered approach and the cognitive-based behavioral treatment (Betz & Thorngren, 2006). While the cognitive-behavioral approach focuses on the development of healthy coping skills, the client-centered approach lays more emphasis on the relationship through challenge and support (Betz & Thorngren, 2006). Therefore the choice of an approach determines the direction the counselor will take while dealing with the child. A number of approaches have been suggested to help counsel the grieving child.
Comprehensible and adequate information regarding death will help clear out all the worries and uncertainties regarding death (Betz & Thorngren, 2006). The counselor should take adequate time to listen to and respond to all questions, while using truthful, simple words to explain death to the child. Death should not be equated to other concepts such as going away, or sleeping, but the counselor should be open and consistent (Wilkinson et al., 2007). The counselor should not only listen, but also observe while the child is speaking in order to be able to understand whatever the child is experiencing. Children should also be encouraged to talk to their friends about death.
Active Expression of Grief
Children should be allowed to be sad and cry whenever they feel like it, to enable them express their emotions, without forcing them to do so (Henderson & Thompson, 2007). The counselor should not also be afraid to express their own emotions, and express that sadness and grief are situations that affect all people regardless of the age. It is okay to cry before the child.
This is the use of books to tackle therapeutic issues and address problems. There are various children’s books available that focus on loss and grief matters. Furthermore, a number of books basically focus on providing help regarding how to cope with children grief. Such books can help the children identify feelings that are related to death, and can offer healthy approaches to coping with loss and grief experienced by children (Robert, 2009). Counselors can use books when dealing with children both individually and in groups, or could establish resource library or books where such books can be accessed. However, it is important to note that counselors have to make a selection that represents various cultures while acquiring such books (Robert, 2009).
Research findings indicate that art could be used to help children express their feelings and pass through the loss they have experienced (Boyd Webb, 2011; Robert, 2009). For instance, the counselor may have the grieving child draw pictures about his/her family both before and after the death, in order to be able to examine and discuss their views regarding whatever changes have taken place within the family. In addition, a child could use art to capture memories of their departed ones, which can be in form of photography, drawing, or writing stories (Boyd Webb, 2011). Art therapy may help the grieving child express feelings regarding the loss and the experiences concerning the changes that have taken place.
Rituals and Ceremonies
Rituals and ceremonies can help a grieving child cope with loss and grief related to death (Peterson et al., 2008). A ceremony may entail a child coming up with a special way to send-off the departed one, not counting the formalized ceremonies that are often held on funeral days (Henderson & Thompson, 2007). The counselor may have the child write a message and burn it, or release it in the air using the balloon to allow the child understand the finality of death. The child-centered ceremony gives support to the grieving child while giving the child some form of control over what happens during the ceremony and to personalize their send-off (Robert, 2009). Rituals also smooth the progress of loss and grief process. This may entails allocating a special place, manner, and time to consistently talk with the counselor regarding their feelings, thus generating enough information that could be used to counsel the grieving child (Henderson & Thompson, 2007).
Support and Adjustment
Express love, care and support to the grieving child and assure them that they will always be supported. It is important to understand that a lot of changes often take place after death and it is very important to help the child understand why the change is necessary, while providing measures that could help the child adapt to the changes (Robert, 2009).
A number of counseling techniques have been brought forward to help children deal with grief and bereavement. These techniques are explored below:
A number of studies indicate that peer support is the most applicable and effective techniques for most of the grieving children (Metel & Barnes, 2011; Leighton, 2008). Through talking and sharing with their age mates, children get that realization that they are not alone; hence, they are able to get an appropriate platform to address their grief issues. Furthermore, it is noted that many children relate better and communicate with their peers as compared to adults (Metel & Barnes, 2011).
Mixed group therapy could also be applied in counseling a grieving child. This basically entails incorporating people of different ages, who are going through similar experiences. This will actually help children understand that they are not the only ones who are going through the situation, and thus making the coping process easier (Robert, 2009).
This is another technique that could be used to counsel a grieving child and is particularly recommended in times when a child is experiencing difficulties in resolving issues related to the loss and sustained grief (Robert, 2009). It is apparent that man issues surround the death of loved ones and may at times be difficult for children to understand, thus, it becomes imperative to provide individual counseling (Leighton, 2008).
Family Therapy Techniques
Studies indicate that the support of the family is particularly very important in helping the grieving child deal with loss (Robert, 2009). Close family members can step in to provide the needed support to help the child understand whatever has happened and cope with it (Leighton, 2008). Family therapy may entail family sessions, in addition to occasional limited sessions involving the child separately from the family members.
Experiencing the death of a loved one is a difficult situation for the children, just as it is for the adults. However, it is very imperative not to disregard their feelings and emotions, as this could be equated to abandoning the child, something that has a powerful impact on the child’s development. Therefore, counselors, supportive adults, as well as caregivers should identify healthy ways to help children cope with loss and grief issues. What is important to keep in mind is that children grieve in different ways. Therefore, it is important for the counselors to identify the specific needs of the child in order to help her/him to deal with the specific loss and grief related issues.