Overcoming Childhood Traumatic Grief

February 6, 2024   •  Posted in: 

This article describes the profound impact of early loss or bereavement on a child’s developing psyche when combined with traumatic circumstances. It also looks at the lasting repercussions of childhood traumatic grief into adulthood.

Suggestions for those seeking support for managing issues around childhood traumatic grief are given at the end of the article.

What is childhood traumatic grief?

Childhood traumatic grief refers to a specific type of grief experienced by children and adolescents who have lost a loved one under traumatic circumstances[1].

This type of grief can be particularly challenging and complex because it combines the typical grieving process with the emotional and psychological impact of a traumatic event.

The trauma-related symptoms disrupt a child’s capacity to grieve the loss properly. Childhood traumatic grief shares similarities with – yet remains separate from – such other responses as uncomplicated bereavement, adult complicated grief, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What sort of traumatic events can trigger childhood traumatic grief?

Childhood traumatic grief typically arises when a child or adolescent experiences the death of a loved one in a traumatic way. This can include accidents, sudden deaths, homicides, suicides, natural disasters, or witnessing a traumatic event firsthand.

What are the typical responses to childhood traumatic grief?

Children experiencing traumatic grief often grapple with complex and intense emotions.

They may experience feelings of shock, guilt, anger, confusion, and fear, in addition to the sadness and loss associated with traditional grief.

Does childhood traumatic grief have an impact on a child’s development?

Traumatic grief can have a significant impact on a child’s emotional and psychological development.

It may disrupt their sense of safety and security, impair their ability to trust others and interfere with their normal developmental milestones.

What are the symptoms of childhood traumatic grief?

Symptoms of childhood traumatic grief can vary but may include nightmares, flashbacks, withdrawal from friends and family, changes in behavior or mood, difficulties at school, and physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches.

What kind of support do children experiencing childhood traumatic grief need?

Children and adolescents experiencing traumatic grief often require specialized support and intervention.

This can include therapy, counseling, or support groups designed to address both the grief and trauma aspects of their experience.

Are there risk factors associated with childhood traumatic grief?

  • Certain factors may increase the risk of a child experiencing traumatic grief, including:
  • The closeness of the relationship with the deceased
  • The age of the child
  • The nature of the traumatic event
  • The availability of a support system

What aids recovery from childhood traumatic grief?

Childhood traumatic grief is a challenging and complex psychological response to loss. It is crucial for caregivers, teachers, and mental health professionals to be aware of its signs and symptoms and to provide children and adolescents with appropriate care and support.

Early intervention and a supportive environment can significantly contribute to a child’s ability to cope with and recover from traumatic grief.

With appropriate support and intervention, many children and adolescents can gradually work through their traumatic grief and develop resilience. Thus, caregivers and professionals must create a safe and supportive environment to help facilitate the healing process.

Are there long-term psychological consequences in adulthood?

Childhood traumatic grief can have significant and lasting impacts on a child’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being.

Long-term effects can vary from person to person. They may depend on various factors, including the nature of the traumatic event, the child’s age, the presence of a support system, and the type of intervention and support received.

Here are some potential long-term impacts of childhood traumatic grief:

Psychological Effects

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
    Children who experience traumatic grief are at increased risk of developing PTSD, which can lead to persistent flashbacks, nightmares, and hyperarousal symptoms.
  • Anxiety and depression
    Traumatic grief can contribute to the development of anxiety and depression in children, which may persist into adulthood if left untreated.
  • Guilt and shame
    Children may carry feelings of guilt or shame related to the traumatic event or the loss, which can impact their self-esteem and self-worth.

Behavioral Effects

  • Behavioral problems
    Traumatic grief can manifest in behavioral issues such as aggression, withdrawal, substance abuse, self-harming behaviors, and delinquency.
  • Academic struggles
    Children may have difficulties concentrating and learning in school, leading to academic underachievement.

Social Effects

  • Impaired relationships
    Traumatic grief can affect a child’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships due to trust issues, emotional dysregulation, and difficulty expressing their emotions.
  • Isolation
    Some children may withdraw from social activities and isolate themselves from peers and loved ones.

Physical Health

Prolonged exposure to stress and unresolved grief can have physical health consequences, including a weakened immune system and an increased risk of developing stress-related illnesses.

Long-Term Grief

In some cases, childhood traumatic grief can lead to unresolved grief that continues into adulthood, impacting a person’s ability to form healthy relationships, maintain emotional stability, and cope with future losses.

Resilience and Growth

It’s important to note not all children who experience traumatic grief will experience long-term negative effects. With the right support, some individuals can develop resilience and post-traumatic growth, using their experiences as a source of strength and personal development.

The long-term impact of childhood traumatic grief underscores the importance of early intervention and ongoing support for affected children. Therapy, counseling, and support groups can play a crucial role in helping children process their grief and trauma, develop coping skills, and mitigate the risk of long-term negative consequences.

It’s also important for caregivers, teachers, and mental health professionals to remain vigilant for signs of ongoing distress in children who have experienced traumatic grief and provide appropriate assistance as needed to promote healing and recovery.

What are the best treatment options for those experiencing childhood traumatic grief?

The treatment of childhood traumatic grief should be tailored to the specific needs of each child and family, as the impact of traumatic grief can vary widely depending on the individual circumstances.

However, there are several evidence-based approaches and interventions that have been shown to be effective in helping children and adolescents cope with traumatic grief[2].

Here are some of the best treatments and strategies:

Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)

TF-CBT is an evidence-based treatment that combines cognitive-behavioral techniques with trauma-specific interventions[3].

It helps children and adolescents process their traumatic experiences, manage distressing emotions, and develop healthy coping skills.

Grief counseling

Grief counseling, provided by trained grief counselors or therapists, can help children and families explore and express their grief in a safe and supportive environment.

This type of therapy can help individuals understand their feelings and develop strategies for coping with loss.

Support groups

Support groups for children and adolescents who have experienced traumatic grief can provide a sense of community and a safe space to share their thoughts and feelings with peers who have had similar experiences.

Parent or caregiver involvement

Involving parents or caregivers in the treatment process is crucial, as they play a significant role in providing support and helping the child heal[4].

Family therapy or parenting interventions can be beneficial.

Psychoeducation

Providing information about grief and trauma, as well as normalizing the child’s reactions, can help reduce anxiety and confusion.

Children and their families should understand their responses are typical reactions to an atypical situation.

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques

Teaching children relaxation exercises and mindfulness techniques can help them manage the stress and anxiety associated with traumatic grief.

Art and play therapy

For younger children or those who may have difficulty expressing themselves verbally, art and play therapy can be effective tools for processing emotions and trauma.

Medication

In some cases, medication may be considered, particularly if the child is experiencing severe symptoms of depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Medication should be prescribed and monitored by a qualified psychiatrist.

School-based interventions

Collaborating with schools to ensure children have the support they need in the academic setting can be essential.

This may include providing information to teachers and school staff, making accommodations, and ensuring a supportive and understanding school environment.

Long-term monitoring

Childhood traumatic grief can have lasting effects, so it’s important for children and adolescents to receive ongoing support and monitoring as they grow and develop.

The best treatment approach will depend on the child’s age, individual needs, and the severity of their symptoms. It’s essential for treatment to be flexible and responsive to the child’s changing needs over time.

Involving a mental health professional with expertise in trauma and grief is crucial to ensuring the child receives appropriate and effective care.

Help at The Center • A Place of HOPE

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1. COHEN, J. A., MANNARINO, A. P., GREENBERG, T., PADLO, S., & SHIPLEY, C. (2002). Childhood Traumatic Grief: Concepts and Controversies. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 3(4), 307–327. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838002237332
2. Judith A. Cohen & Anthony P. Mannarino (2004) Treatment of Childhood Traumatic Grief, Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 33:4, 819-831, DOI: 10.1207/s15374424jccp3304_17
3. & 4. COHEN, J. A. et al. (2004) Treating Childhood Traumatic Grief: A Pilot Study. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. [Online] 43 (10), 1225–1233.

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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