Bereaved Kids – The Impact Decades Later!

While we would hope that death is not part of a kid’s experience, approximately 5% of the global population experiences the loss of a parent during their early childhoods. While the society is so little preoccupied with the long-term impact of parental death on the future adult, children all over the world experience loss and grief and developmental issues because of it.

Coping with the loss of someone is looking fairly different in kids. Children oftentimes carry on with their daily school schedule and extracurricular activities. Because of this reason, society is neglecting the issue. Most of the adults that experienced the loss of a parent during their childhood claimed that they would trade a year of their life for one more day with their parents, while significantly more claimed that they think of the lost parent frequently.

The Sad Sad Consequences

Children are unable to develop healthy coping mechanisms. They learn at a very young age that society is reluctant at discussing matters such as loss and grief. The complications are numerous and they oftentimes revolve around the adult’s inability to form and maintain healthy relationships. They also form an unclear and unhealthy image on family and show severe attachment issues.

According to a study from 2013, while the individual experiences of bereavement in childhood were unique and context-bound, there were two reoccurring themes: disruption and continuity. The dynamics of the child’s relationships and image on society are deeply modified by the loss of a parental figure. But there are several other severe consequences of bereavement in childhood.

Depression, anxiety, substance abuse and eating disorders are some of the most common disorders that appear in the later adults who, as children, struggled with loss. The forgotten mourners, as they are oftentimes named, are more likely to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms, in the lack of a guiding figure and proper education on loss. Normally, grieving children should be assisted during their childhoods by therapists, but this is a rare occurrence.

Children’s grief is overlooked and gets dismissed in most of the cases. It’s also easy to overlook their grief because they show emotions differently than adults do. For instance, if a grieving child falls and injures themselves, they may start crying. But in most of the cases, the crying is caused by the loss of a parental figure and not the injury itself.

Because children shortly realize that their emotions are dismissed by their peers and adults in their lives, they stop communicating. This leads to developmental issues in the future and an excruciating feeling that they do not fit in. They develop behavioural issues and coping mechanisms, unhealthy ones, that persist during their adulthoods. Drug abuse, as surprising as it might sound, is oftentimes characteristic to adults who, as children faced a severe loss.

Why therapy and counselling matter in grieving children

Most adults’ intentions when interacting with a grieving child may be good, but they are enslaved by the fear of not doing something wrong. Also, stigma and the lack of proper knowledge and education on grief and trauma make others dismiss a child’s grief. While the process cannot be stopped, knowing how to approach it can make a true difference in later adult’s well-being.

Therapy, in this case, should be the standard approach. Children need to know that it’s okay to talk about death and grief. Children’s grief, while fundamentally different, should be encouraged as part of a normal healing process. The adults in their lives should not try to suppress it and should seek professional help for their children.

Counselling can help at any age, but the sooner the grieving child receives it, the higher are the chances to become functional and healthy adults. Grief counsellors are oftentimes specialised in child’s grief and they can teach the young one to develop healthier coping mechanisms. You may be surprised, but suicidal thoughts do appear in grieving children, mainly because of their desire to reunite with their deceased parent. The adult may show similar mental issues if the matter is not addressed at a young age.

The consequence of early parental loss on the future adults can be problematic and they revolve around mental health concerns as well as behavioural issues. While frequently dismissed, children’s grieving process should be assisted by a specialised counsellor.

Although I do not work with children myself.  I do work with adults who have been bereaved as children.  Many don’t realise that some of the causes to their current problematic habits, feelings and behaviours are traced back to a bereavement from early childhood.  Where they grew up in a society that didn’t understand that kids are affected.  That they do remember and that they need to be helped to express their pain, confusion and sadness.  There is no blame here, the adults around a grieving kid are ALWAYS trying to do the very best they can with the inner resources they possess at that time.  

It’s time to put grief, loss and bereavement on the school timetable so that kids know it’s ok to talk about it.