Coronavirus: Loss and grief in children and teenagers
Following on from my article on worry and anxiety about coronavirus, another huge current issue appears to be loss and grief in children and teenagers, as most are facing huge changes in their lives.
Both primary and secondary school children had a sudden and shocking ending to this current school term, full of uncertainty. A level and GCSE students know they will not return to school as they know it, and other pupils (those who are in their final year of primary school, for example), do not know if they will return to see their friends before moving to a new school.
It is so difficult for us all (children or adults) to process sudden and drastic changes. Children are coping with multiple “losses” all at once. These might include:
- Friendships (in some cases not knowing if they will see some friends again face to face);
- Teacher relationships;
- The safety and structure of school;
- Rites of passage such as school residential trips, school proms;
- Even exams, which many children have worked so hard for and do not know if they will receive the grades they deserve.
Knock-on effect of adult loss
Not only are children faced with their own losses, but they may also be experiencing the impact of family and parental losses. For example, many adults have lost their jobs or businesses and are having to come to terms with huge financial and personal changes. However they may try to protect children from this, children are likely to feel some of the emotional impact.
More loss to come for some families
Of course, we are told that we are only at the beginning of this crisis and many people are going to become ill. Children may be facing bereavements and further losses in their lives. The principles of helping children to deal with this will be the same, but I will be posting more about this in the coming weeks and months.
Grief is usually the term used when someone has died. However, any loss will trigger a grief reaction. In the case of coronavirus, a particularly strong or complex reaction may happen because there are multiple and sudden losses. Later on, children may also experience bereavements of course, on top of all their other losses.
Grief comes in waves. This diagram is taken from the Heegard series of books for children (see below), which I have found invaluable over the years in my work as a clinical psychologist:
This means that some days, your child may appear to be dealing with the changes in a matter-of-fact way with no difficulties at all. Other days, he may feel weighed down or overwhelmed by his complex emotions.
There is no right or wrong pathway when it comes to grief, and there is no set course or time limit. What grief looks like will depend on so many things: Your child’s age; how good he is at articulating his feelings; and how stable and secure his life was before. Those children who felt happy and secure previously, and have an adult in their lives who makes them feel safe, and more likely to have the mental resilience to bounce back easily from their losses. Those who already felt unsafe or stressed about aspects of their lives, may find the additional burden of loss more overwhelming and may need more support from the adults around them.
Loss and grief in children and teenagers: What you can do to support your child
Validate the feeling of loss.
However you feel tempted to say, “it’s only a school trip/prom/event, many people are worse off” try not to. Try to empathize with the emotion, rather than what is causing it. Just because others are, indeed, worse off, it doesn’t mean the loss is less real.
Help them identify and process the emotions in a contained way (when they are ready).
Children could draw the emotion they feel. Does their confusion feel like a big tornado? Does their sadness feel like a heavy coat? Draw it. Visuals help us process things that can seem fuzzy and hard to pin down, making them easier to understand and less scary. My son has taken to writing poetry. Others may write music. For others still, just talking is the best way. This book by Marge Heegard is fantastic for helping children make sense of traumatic events.
Make sure they understand that all emotions are okay.
Acknowledge that their emotions might be “messy” and mixed up. Positive emotions will be mixed in. For example, they might be happy to have time at home with you, worried and scared about their grandparents, and sad or angry about not being able to see their friends. All emotions are allowed, all are valid.
Create some structure in the day. Structure is containing.
Children will gain some sense of safety from doing certain things at the same time each day, such as eating meals together in the evenings. Within that framework, ensure that your child engages in some “flow” activities. These are enjoyable activities that a child can become fully absorbed in. Whilst your child is engaged in that activity, his mind is fully in the present, rather than caught up in thoughts about the past or the future. This gives his brain and nervous system a break from complicated emotions and the physical reactions they create in the body.
Know that the feelings lessen and pass.
Loss and grief in children and teenagers is complex, different for everyone, and will come in waves. However, your child needs to know that any uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings will not always be there. They will lessen and eventually pass, just like clouds in the sky.
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The UK clinical psychologist community, including Lucy, have set up a Facebook group, for those needing support with their emotional wellbeing. The group, Emotional Health Toolkit, provides high quality information and resources you can add to your own personal toolkit of coping strategies, to help manage the anxiety and negative impact of Covid-19 on our emotional health. Topics covered will include: Supporting children and young people; relationship health; supporting those on the front line; and getting better sleep. We will add content on a regular basis.