Childhood Grief and Impact Part 2: Needs and Brain Development in Childhood Grief
Our brains are fascinating. On a macro level, they have the potential to solve some of the world’s greatest concerns; on a micro level, they can notice the slightest facial expression to create emotional meaning. The purposeful structures in our brains help us become alert to dangerous situations, grapple with conflict, and return to joy upon feeling intense emotions. As mentioned in Childhood Grief and Impact – Part 1, grief can have a tremendous impact on an individual, especially a child. Although we have more insight than ever before to understand childhood grief and its influence, it is vital to understand children’s common needs along the grief journey as they pertain to child development.
Right and left hemispheres
While there are numerous ways to approach neuroscience, I particularly would like to focus on the simplest forms of understanding the brain. For teaching purposes, the brain can be conceptualized as two hemispheres, a right and left, each with their own general purposes. These hemispheres are important for our daily functioning. The left brain is primarily tasked with making meaning, using logic, and enacting reason. It uses linguistics and thinks linearly. The right brain primarily governs nonverbals and specializes in images, emotions, and personal memories (3, p. 16). As Dan Siegel (3) states, “in order to live balanced, meaningful, and creative lives connected to relationships, it’s crucial our two hemispheres work together” (20). Thus, parents can help children foster these connections between their right and left hemispheres of the brain throughout their development.
I imagine you are wondering, “what does this have to do with grief?” As we know, grief can oftentimes be intense and felt deeply by others. However, it is not just a right-brain experience for a child. By understanding the common needs a child has during the grief journey, a parent or guardian has a wonderful opportunity to come alongside a child in their grief while fostering growth between both hemispheres of the brain.
Children need validation
Very young children are primarily right-brain dominant, especially within the first three years of their life; thus, validating a child’s emotional experience within the grief journey can be exceedingly powerful. Validation occurs when an adult in the bereaved child’s life acknowledges the child’s emotional experience and creates space for them to express it. Oftentimes, children express and cope with their grief through play. Playing is a way children learn, discover, express, and experience the world around them (2). As McNiel and Gabbay (2) state, “play is also a great way for adults to connect with children and be invited into their world.” Right-brain-to-right-brain attunement helps bring the brain into a more integrated state (3), p. 25). This integration allows space for the child to then engage their left brain and bring understanding to their experience. Basically, this means that helping a child feel seen, understood and connected to no matter what they are experiencing, helps the child’s grief resolve in the most healthy way.
Children need honesty
It is very common for parents or caregivers to avoid sharing with their child about a particular event due to the fear that it may cause more emotional pain. While there are many developmental factors to consider when discussing a death-related event, it is vital for the parent to remain honest with the child. As McNiel and Gabbay (2) state, “honesty is important with children to build trusting relationships with those caring for them.” Telling lies in hopes to protect the child or using euphemisms for death can become confusing for kids. Remember, simplistically, parents can promote growth between the child’s right and left hemispheres. Thus, when a child is experiencing deep emotions from grief, one can aid a child’s left-brain development by providing information as to what is going on at an age-appropriate level (2). Honesty promotes healthy brain development, so kids can “put things in order and to name” those right brain emotions and work throughout them effectively. (3, 29).
Children need normalization
While we know there is a wide spectrum of emotions and intensity within grief, it is highly beneficial for children to know that their grief is normal (2, p. 40). Children are the best observers, but not the greatest interpreters. When a child perceives their parents or caregivers as strong and in control while grieving, it can become confusing for the child who does not feel strong or feels out of control (3, p. 108). As McNiel and Gabbay (2) state, “most often, they lack a context for understanding these thoughts and feelings and will struggle to adapt them into their present reality” (2, p. 40). Remember, their left brains are still developing and trying to put the puzzle pieces of reason, emotion, understanding, and experiences together.
In essence, a child’s development is certainly impacted during the grief journey. Children’s brains are rapidly developing, trying to make sense of their world and how they experience heavy emotions that are commonly experienced in grief. There is power in using presence as one attunes with their children, validating and normalizing their experience to promote healthy brain development. How we help our children grieve will be how they help their children grieve. I hope this article provides you with the tools you need that will lead to healthy grieving for this generation as well as generations to come.
Harris, D., & Winokuer, H. R. (2021). Principles and practice of Grief Counseling. Springer
Publishing Company, LLC.
McNiel, A., & Gabbay, P. (2018). Understanding and supporting bereaved children: A
practical guide for professionals. Springer Publishing Company, LLC.
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to
Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind (Illustrated ed.). Bantam.