Death is never easy to cope with – but harder still for toddlers, who don’t yet have the emotional maturity to cope with the loss of a loved one. Clinical psychologist Candice Cowen explains how to help your child through the grieving process.
When someone significant in your family passes away, whether it is a granny or a pet, your children are exposed to the emotional experience that comes with it. Death may be an unfamiliar and new experience for your toddler, and things that are new and unfamiliar can be a little scary and confusing for a little one.
They may not understand what death really means and may be surrounded by adults in their life who are displaying signs and symptoms of grief, such as crying or withdrawal. Fear may be heightened for them if the death was traumatic or if the person or thing was someone or something that played a significant role in their daily lives.
In order to ease your worries about your child, it is important for you to be aware of what it is like from a toddler’s perspective, to experience the death of a loved one. Children may not experience the grief process the same way that adults do.
From your toddler’s perspective
Most adults have experienced a loss or death in some shape or form, so we are familiar with the process and the emotions associated with grief. These emotions range from shock, denial anger, guilt, regret and sadness, to confusion and acceptance.
The grief process that a toddler may go through is not quite the same as an adult’s, however, because children at this age are not developmentally geared to navigate their way through these emotions. They do not have the cognitive or emotional capacity to identify, verbalise, understand, integrate and process these emotions.
Toddlers, depending on the child’s age and emotional maturity, can be very concrete in their thinking and self-awareness. They may not fully have the ability to realise that the person or thing that has died is no longer here. This concept, in psychological terms, is called ‘object permanence’ and is an essential part of developmental milestones. It is the ability to realise that death takes on another form and that the person or thing that has died no longer exists (on earth).
Parents may notice that their little one keeps asking after the person or thing that has passed away. They may experience fear, anxiety, sadness and confusion just as we do as adults, but their emotions are often expressed differently.
Reponses may vary
They might become more clingy or tearful after the death. This may happen at any point of the day but it is often noticed at night time, during drop-off at school or at sudden changes in daily routines. They might complain of more frequent physical complaints such as a sore tummy or headaches. There might even be emotional outbursts such as snatching toys or aggressive play. Some toddlers may even withdraw socially and behave slightly out of character. However, toddlers can also seem unmoved or show no signs of the grief process.
These responses are all age-appropriate and are expected reactions to the death of a loved one. This emotional rollercoaster can be confusing and alarming for any parent. It’s important to remain calm, take a deep breath and respond to your toddler at their level. It’s even more important to remind yourself that what your child is going through is normal and that the emotions associated with this process won’t harm them or you.
Comforting your child
Once you have taken a deep breath and paused some of your own anxiety you can help your child’s process in a number of ways.
First, understand what stage of cognitive and emotional development they are in by educating yourself with books or speaking to your child’s school or other parents. Then assess by listening to your child and what they are saying, asking or doing. By observing this you can gather information about what support or comfort is needed.
If your child is asking questions about what death is or where the person has gone, then try to answer them in an age-appropriate manner. Whether you choose an explanation from a belief framework or from a book, you can check in with your little one to see if they understand or if they have further questions.
Create the option for them to explore the concept more whenever they need to. By doing this you are creating an awareness of an ongoing conversation that they can have with you throughout the grieving process. Children will either need to use this or not.
Dealing with anxiety
It certainly helps if you as parents have some certainty around anxiety management. If your child is experiencing clinginess or tearfulness, you can offer them comfort physically (a hug or cuddles) or you can offer them emotional comfort by telling them that it’s okay to feel what they feeling. You may even need to help them identify what they are feeling by giving words to feelings and explaining what that feeling could be doing to them or making them think. Children learn about emotions through their parents and it’s a great opportunity to teach your child about them.
Finally, your child may be going through some change in routine or daily structure after a death of a loved one. This can create anxiety and bring about other symptoms of distress. You, as the parent, are going through your own emotional process and may be faced with logistics and arrangements that come after a passing. This for them, changes the routine and predictability of their lives.
You can help your toddler by being mindful of the changes that might come and you can attempt to provide them with some normalcy or routine that they are familiar with. It’s important to remember that if you respond to your child during this time at their level, you are already assisting them with managing what they are experiencing in a mindful, manner, which will reduce levels of distress from an already difficult process.
In this way, toddlers and children can learn about difficult emotions, how to understand and cope with them, and how to have a healthy relationship with the grieving process.