Remember the time you were a little kid and lost something? Maybe your pet goldfish died. A dear friend moved away from your neighborhood. Or a bully in school stole your collection of heart rocks and mocked you.
No matter what it was, you felt that pain in your gut. You locked it away in your heart. And as you read these words, you remember every last vivid detail of that loss.
Children respond to loss in ways that are very different from adults. They are more open to feeling what they feel; at the same time, they take their cues from the adults in their space. How we handle our sadness is crucial in how our children handle theirs. Honesty is the best antidote to depression or feelings of isolation. So the better we are at being able to show, talk about, and feel our feelings, the healthier models we are for our children. We give them permission to do the same.
According to The American Academy of Child and Adult Psychiatry (AACAP) any of the following symptoms could be a signal that a child is depressed rather than just sad:
- frequent displays of sadness, tearfulness, or crying
- expressions of hopelessness
- decreased interest in activities or inability to enjoy previously favorite activities
- persistent boredom; low energy
- social isolation; poor communication
- low self-esteem and guilt
- extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
- increased irritability, anger, or hostility
- difficulty with relationships
- frequent complaints of physical illnesses, such as headaches and stomachaches
- frequent absences from school or poor performance in school
- poor concentration
- a major change in eating or sleeping patterns
- talk of running away or efforts to run away from home
- thoughts or expressions of suicide or elf-destructive behavior
Here are 7 ways to support a child through loss:
- Make it okay for them to feel what they feel. Do not minimize or judge their feelings. Try not to say “Stop moping around, for God’s sake!” or “Why are you still crying??!!” Children need to know that tears are as normal to express as laughter or fear. Sharing feelings helps everyone feel safe, loved, and supported.
- Embrace their losses, no matter how small. A school fight or a best friend not talking to them can make children extremely sad. Losing a game, not being picked for the school play, or being embarrassed by an insensitive teacher are a big deal to a child. Let them know that it’s okay to feel sad, no matter what the loss.
- Thank them for sharing. When a child opens up and shares their sadness and what caused it, acknowledge them for it. This helps validate their action and lets them know that it’s okay to talk about such things.
- Share your own experiences. You may want to share a story from your life about how when you were seven years old, something happened that made you very sad and how you dealt with it. Or how no one was around to support you and how that made you feel. It underscores your empathy and your child will know he/she is special to you.
- Offer perspective. Help your child see that everyone has touch moments and choices in life. Let them know that difficulties are a great way to help us grow. That we can be kind toward someone else because of what we go through. This lets them know they’re not alone, and that life throws tough stuff at everyone.
- Read a book. Read and discuss a book where a character feels sad and discuss the choices the character made. Teach them that one can always find a way out of the darkness and foster a positive attitude to life.
- Help them find solutions. Ask them what might help them feel better. Maybe you can come up with a list: go get ice cream, make art, go to the playground, receive hugs, or talk it out with an adult. This teaches them an important life lesson. Sadness comes with solutions. They can find a way out by thinking things through.
Which of the above have you tried with a child? Share your experiences.