Signs of Grief and Trauma in Children: Tools for Tough Times

child experiencing grief and trauma

Project Play Therapy continues to try our best to support our community with resources through this difficult time. The events that took place at the Covenant School were traumatic for all, but it is important to understand that trauma and grief are subjective experiences. They are felt and manifested differently in each of us. Read on to find out ways to help support our children through trauma and grief and promote healing. 

Children’s age/stage of cognitive development (think Piaget), is going to play a major role in how they perceive traumatic events. Most adults need a reminder that we perceive this through an adult lens, which is typically oriented toward long-term outcomes. It is important to note that kids are typically more impacted by how the event affects their day-to-day, or present moment. 

Not all kids are going to experience traumatic grief, so the first step that may be helpful for parents is knowing how to identify if their child is experiencing that grief. Sometimes, we as adults can inadvertently cause kids to feel like they SHOULD be feeling traumatized by this event, when developmentally, it’s appropriate for them to be more concerned about their baseball game next weekend. Below are some common ways to identify if your child is experiencing grief. 

General Signs of Grief in Children 

2 – 4 year olds 
  • Regression in skills
  • Increased separation anxiety
  • Sleep changes
  • Repetitive questions
  • An increase in the need to be held
5 – 8 year olds 
  • Sleep changes 
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Repetitive questions like How? Why? Who else?
  • Increasing concerns around safety 
  • Physical complaints of health 
  • Regression in skills
  • Mood swings 
8 – 12 Year Olds
  • “Acting out” behaviors
  • Anxiety that the world is not safe
  • Difficulties focusing and concentrating
  • Nightmares
  • Physical complaints
  • Use of play and talk to recreate events
  • Detailed questions about death
  • Wide range of emotions expressed: rage, revenge, guilt, sadness, relief, worrying, and hypervigilance

Once you identify that your child is grieving (or not, that is OK too), you can try these tools to help promote felt safety, trust, and healing. Remember, healthy grieving will look different for everyone. Please adapt these tips and strategies to meet the needs of your unique child. 

Helpful Tools During Tough Times

  • Consistent, nurturing bedtime routines
  • Intentional time to talk with kids
  • Encouraging questions
  • Reassure your child frequently that they are safe and you will keep them safe
  • Talk on their level and do not overcomplicate things
  • Reassure that things are getting better, point out the changes and the positive
  • Limit exposure to media 
  • Make sure you are taking care of your own health 
  • Pay attention to play, it may give you a better understanding of their questions and concerns
  • Maintain family routines 
  • Reminders that you love them 
  • Create lists of things that make them feel better
  • Read books related to rescue, recover, and hope
  • Family game nights
  • Relaxation techniques 
  • Plan weekly activities to take breaks from the stress