How Parents and Adults can Help Children and Adolescents Grieve Throughout the Holidays

The time of year is upon us as many begin to show our gratitude, count blessings, have holiday opportunities to celebrate faith and culture with loved ones and take steps to move forward to improve ourselves as the year turns.

However, when you know a child or teenager that is grieving throughout the holiday season, they might have a different outlook on the ‘uplifting themes’ that are typical for this time of year. It’s understandable that the holiday season will be tough for them and even more challenging for
family members or guardians who might be grieving along with them. Although the overall focus of this particular blog is about children and adolescents grieving the death of someone throughout the holiday season, death is not the only type of loss a child might be experiencing. Divorce​, moving, and any type of ‘life event’ that triggers the loss of a significant relationship to the child or teen can cause them to grieve.

Understand the Child’s or Teen’s Developmental Perspectives of Death
Research performed by Maria Nagy segments children’s perspectives of death into three categories (the age ranges are a guideline and will vary from child to child). Use this information and help it guide you with your child and what your child tells you about how they view the loss and to help you find appropriate ways for your child to express what they feel.
Ages 3 to 5:​ Death is a physical relocation, and the deceased exists somewhere else.
Ages 5 to 9: D​eath is often personified, and can be avoided.
Ages 9 to 10+: ​Death is universal, inevitable, and irreversible.

Acknowledge Feelings as Natural
It is natural for children and teens to experience a wide range of emotions when grieving the death or loss of someone significant. You can facilitate healthy coping with their grief by acknowledging their feelings and helping them understand that their intense feelings are normal

Allow this Year to be Different
If you are the parent or guardian, and are facing financial hardships after the major loss, allow there to be fewer gifts this year. If you have traditionally cooked a large meal for the entire family for a holiday but find that this year you do not have the energy to invest that much time into preparing and cooking the traditional meal, allow this year to be different, be compassionate to your needs and order out, or go to someone else’s home, or make reservations.

Be Vulnerable to Your Grief
If you feel like you are pressuring yourself to celebrate the holiday season, this will likely only cause you and your child/teen more stress. In addition to the grief a major loss brings, there are secondary losses as well (e.g. loss of family structure, loss of support systems, loss of a chosen lifestyle, loss of security/financial security, loss of ability to focus and function, etc.). Children and teens are sensitive to your stress, so try not to take on more than you can and try to be vulnerable to your grief by embracing the brokenness rather than trying to hold it all together. With time, life will come back together modified, but it only works when we allow ourselves the vulnerability of falling apart.

Children and Teens Grieve Differently than Adults
Even if your child or teen does not talk frequently about the death or the significant loss, do not expect for them to be “over it.” The anniversary of the death of loss during the holiday season, or the ‘first’ holiday season without their loved one may cause the child or teen to experience intense emotions even if they have not talked about the loss for some time. Realize that familiar traditions, sights, smells and tastes, may be comforting, or may upset them. ​Try to be more observant about your child’s/teen’s emotions during the holiday season ​and be ready to be supportive (e.g. that might mean being vulnerable and asking for additional help during the season from family and friends, people you trust around your children). Try to be more accepting of your child’s/teen’s emotional expressions and avoid minimizing their feelings or feeling the need to put a “positive” spin on their expressions. For example, saying, “It’s important to focus on the good times you had with your mother,” is likely to communicate that you don’t want to hear a child talk about painful things. Plus, it’s important to remember that they are not going to forget that they have lost a significant relationship in their life, by only talking about the good times. This could create a sense of needing to pretend that everything is fine and will not temper their pain, but could lead to adding more confusion to what is already a distressing situation. Allowing them to be emotionally expressive validates for them that it is okay to be upset about their significant loss.

Give Your Children/Teenager Permission to Celebrate
As an adult, it might be easier to ignore the holidays because they seem too painful to endure however, it’s important that children and teens are given the opportunity to celebrate the holidays without feeling bad or feeling guilty. Try to suppress the urge to avoid the holiday season and try to acknowledge that they still have a need to “just be a kid,” especially during the holidays. With that said, children’s and teen’s expectations regarding the holiday, feelings about what they want or don’t want to do may change from one day to the next. Be patient and go with the flow. Although this might elicit frustration from you, like adults, it is normal for children and teens to be indecisive while grieving.

Lower Expectations
By acknowledging that your child or teen still has a need to “just be a kid,” do only as much as you can manage comfortably and know that it is okay to change how you use to celebrate the holidays in the past. Also don’t allow society to peer pressure you or let other people determine what you “should” (or “shouldn’t”) do. Give yourselves the right to lower your expectations during the holiday season!

Plan Ahead
Plan ahead with your child or teen by talking with them about their feelings and expectations for the holiday season and decide what traditions still work for your family, what traditions it’s time to let go of, and what new traditions you can create together. Make holiday plans that help your child/teen feel nurtured, emotionally safe, and comfortable.

Buying Gifts will not Mask their Grief
There is no way to take away the pain of grief, but the ultimate gift that keeps on giving for grieving children and teens is when adults offer love, support and comfort. This gives a grieving child/teen a feeling of safety and security and really shows how much you care. The loss of a loved one
leaves children and teens grieving, even if they aren’t sure how to talk about their grief. Certain types of tangible gifts might be beneficial for the child/teen as they work through their grieving process.

A children’s book about death or grieving puts the process in a format a child can relate to. Books about grief and death are also a great source for adolescents to refer to as well.

Journals or Memory Books
A journal or memory book gives older kids a place to write down their memories of the person they lost. They might also use the book to process their feelings of grief and sadness.

Keepsake items related to the person who passed away gives the child/teen a tangible reminder of their relationship.

Art Supplies
Art projects give a grieving child/teen an activity to help take her mind off the situation. Art can also be used to help them process their feelings related to their loss.

Lastly, in order to help grieving teens and children throughout the holiday season, you have to first remember to try to help yourself. Children and teens will often take on how they cope with a significant loss by following the adult/caregiver they are living with. How you handle things can determine in part, how they will handle things. The trick is to find a balance because ideally we want our children and teens to be comfortable expressing their emotions related to their grief while not getting completely pushed around by them.

If you know someone struggling during the holiday season, please support them in scheduling an appointment. They do not have to warrior through the holidays alone.

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