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Children and Grief at the Holidays

sad_boy_in_santa_hatLoss is a hard topic to talk about with children. They may not understand why grandma isn’t here anymore, or why dad is living somewhere else. It is compounded when added to the mix of the holidays.

Today’s blog answers four common questions about children dealing with loss or grief during the holidays. Christie Stiff, MSMFT, coordinator of Rainbows at The Family Institute, offers ideas for working through the sadness, and making the holidays a little brighter for children.

1) What is the best way to handle loss or grief over the holidays with a child?

It is important for parents and children to know that the grieving process looks different for every person and there is no “right” way to grieve. Children may grieve differently than adults, and a child’s grieving can be harder to detect. Children may feel the need to hide their grief to protect or care for the parent. Some children may try and avoid feeling sad, while others may be overwhelmed by their emotions. Children may feel many emotions about grief and loss over the holidays, and it is helpful for parents to help their children accept these feelings as they are.  For example, some children may feel sad that they are not getting to experience the joy of the holidays, while others may feel guilty for allowing themselves to feel joyful. It is helpful for parents to normalize these feelings and help their children to accept their emotions as they are, not try and judge them.

2) Traditions change with the loss of a loved one. How do you handle those traditions?

Instead of trying to ignore the loss of a loved one over the holidays, try and help children talk about a holiday memory that included their loved one. Maybe families can talk about a special tradition they used to do with the loved one and continue incorporating that into their holiday routine. Families can talk about the parts of the holiday that they loved participating with alongside their loved one, or the parts of the holiday that their loved one enjoyed the most. Children can also heal through continuing to give a special gift in remembrance of the loved one they lost or writing a letter to the person.

In addition to continuing family traditions, families can share favorite stories of the loved one or light a candle in remembrance. Families can highlight their loved ones goals/values and make a donation to a related cause in their name. Families should be open to making new or slightly different traditions.

3) What do you do if a child is showing no interest in being part of the holiday celebrations?

Grieving can be exhausting, so it is helpful for parents to be mindful of their children’s limits. Help children be aware that they are doing the best they can and create a plan to scale back on holiday obligations if necessary (not sending Christmas cards,  no excessive decorating, etc.).

Children may also need additional alone time during the holidays. It is important to give children adequate space to process their feelings, while still providing comfort and support. Planning could be important with this topic. Before the holiday begins, talk about what support the child needs. Discuss a sign that your child can give you when they need to be left alone. Parents should also reach out to friends or relatives that the child feels close to and feels supported by to help their child throughout the holidays.

4) What are ways to make the holidays brighter for a child going through loss/grief? 

Children should take part in activities that allow them to feel closer to their loved one. Maybe the child and the loved one always decorated cookies together. Maybe there is another relative willing to take part in that tradition to help continue it. Parents need to provide a positive sentiment of the holidays rather than only focusing on the loss itself.

Families can also find a support group to attend over the holidays so that children can seek comfort from others who are having a similar experience of the holiday season.

 

Christie Stiff, MSMFT, is a Clinical Program Fellow at The Family Institute. She has a special interest in and significant clinical experience working with child and adult anxiety, disordered eating, depression, non-suicidal self-injury and young children with behavioral issues. Ms. Stiff also has training in utilizing Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) techniques and exposure-based therapies to treat anxiety, depression and emotion regulation issues. In addition, through the Parents in Charge program, Ms. Stiff has experience with parent training for children under 7 with acting out behaviors, challenges due to the regulation of their emotions or academic concerns.

The Family Institute offers affordable, effective mental health counseling for families, couples and individuals in Evanston, Chicago, Northbrook and Westchester. To learn more about our therapy and mental health services, please visit our website.

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