November is Children and Teen Grief Awareness Month. According to a 2021 bereavement estimation model published by Judi’s house, one out of every 15 children living in the state of Massachusetts will lose a parent or sibling before they graduate. These staggering statistics, combined with the societal tendency to downplay the emotions of teens and children, are why this month is so important. November is a time to consider the needs of children and teens experiencing loss. Part of understanding the importance of National Children’s and Teen Grief Awareness Month means understanding what happens when our children do not process their grief.

What happens when we do not process our grief?

small upset child - grief awareness

After the loss of a loved one, all of us experience the tremendous sadness that comes with grief. The feelings of loss, hopelessness, emptiness, numbness, anger, denial, and sadness can all present differently in children and teens than in adults. A child who is having problems with grief may show some of these signs:

  • Depression and loss of interest in things that used to bring them joy
  • Change in sleep habits or inability to sleep
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fear of being alone
  • Acting younger than their age, also called regression
  • Imitating the loved one they lost
  • Withdrawal from their social circles
  • Noticeable differences in academic performance
  • Refusing to attend school altogether

It’s easy to see how any of the above symptoms could present an issue in the life of a young child or teen. These are mostly short-term effects of unprocessed grief, but these can also have long-term effects.

Incomplete grief and its signs in teens and children

Incomplete grief happens when the grieving process is stalled or completely avoided. It takes a serious toll on mental health. There are five key signs of incomplete grief. These symptoms can occur at any time during the expected grieving process but are especially common in individuals who have shoved their grief underground for an extended period.

1. Numbness and apathy

This is a low-grade but consistent state of depression. It shows up as a why-bother attitude, fatigue, loss of drive, and lack of motivation. It’s an emotional shutdown in an attempt to avoid the many overwhelming emotions of grief.

2. Drug or alcohol abuse or self-harm

Too often these signs are regarded as misbehavior or an affront to a child’s caretaker. Oftentimes these behaviors are an attempt to process the bigger emotions that make up grief. They may become overall angrier and push others away when they need the support the most.

3. Overreactive behavior

When we experience pain and trauma, our brain’s immediate reaction is to protect ourselves from it ever happening again. When combined with incomplete grief, overreaction often shows up soon after the decision is made, consciously or not, to avoid pain. This can present as co-dependency, pulling away from others, and avoiding emotional relationships.

4. Fear of loss and hyper-alertness of mortality.

We all feel more fragile after a loss. Our kids are already a vulnerable population because they are still developing their emotional selves. After a loss, they can experience a massive loss of stability, and the entire world looks unsafe. Usually, someone experiencing this will always expect a worst-case scenario.

picture of upset teen girl - teen grief

5. Obsessing over the person they lost

Part of processing grief is processing what happened, why, and understanding the feelings we have surrounding that. Unprocessed grief can lead to the exact opposite reaction, which is to obsess about these things. These obsessions differ from processing because it involves getting emotionally stuck within the grief. These individuals may cry whenever the lost person is mentioned, replay moments they regret with the person, and even dial the lost person’s phone number.

Our children and our teens feel grief just as strongly as adults do. That’s why it’s so important that we recognize National Children and Teen Grief Awareness Month as well acknowledge our children’s grief and help them through it. If you feel your child could use help processing loss, feel free to contact us to schedule a consultation.