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Latest news
28
April
2017

Time in with Dr. Tim: Prince Harry's example can help children cope with grief

By Tim Goldsmith, Ph.D

Britain’s Prince Harry recently shared a revealing fact about grief. During an interview on a national podcast, the 32-year-old royal admitted that, for more than 20 years, he never spoke about the loss of his mother, Princess Diana. The princess died in 1996 during a high-speed car crash in Paris. Harry was 12 years old at the time of her violent and unexpected death.

After the tragedy, “I just shut down my emotions,” the prince told British journalist Bryony Gordon on her podcast Mad World. He stowed away his feelings and went on about his life. But they didn’t disappear. When Harry began having angry outbursts several years ago, he realized he needed help. At the root of the problem? Failing to come to terms with the grief around his mother’s death during his early adolescence was contributing to current impairment in his daily adult life. Now Harry, along with his brother and sister-in-law, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, has founded a mental health charity called Heads Together to encourage others to talk about mental health issues.

Harry’s inability to express his feelings is not unusual. Grief comes with a strong range of emotions — anger, sadness, fear, guilt — and internalizing those feelings is often easier than facing them. Navigating the normal process of bereavement can be additionally challenging if the adults around us are too lost in their own sadness to help.

Like Prince Harry, many of the children and teens who we treat at Youth Villages have experienced significant losses. They grieve many things: small events like the passing of the family dog or a childhood friend who moves away to larger losses of childhood such as the removal from home due to abuse or neglect, separation from family members following divorce, or even the death of a primary caregiver.

Grief manifests differently in each child, depending on age and other factors, Katherine Peatross, clinical service program manager with Youth Villages. “Some children may present as increasingly tearful, afraid to leave their caretaker, they may become angry, or they may withdraw. The notion that children are resilient is dependent upon a lot of different factors. They can look resilient when they’re really not.”

As parents and caregivers, it is up to us to help our children through this journey. We need to help them understand their loss, let them know that it is okay to feel sad or mad, and reinforce that it is okay to openly mourn and talk about the person they loved. It is our job to teach our children healthy ways of coping with strong feelings. Our ultimate aim is to raise emotionally resilient adults, better able to manage the many ups and downs that life will bring — and learning to deal with grief helps.

Five Ways to Help Your Child Manage Grief

  • Keep lines of communication open. Let your child know you are available to listen to what he is thinking and feeling.

  • Don’t assume if your child isn’t talking about his feelings that everything is okay. Ask questions. These won’t trigger negative thoughts but instead will open the door to meaningful conversation.

  • Children learn by asking questions. Answer your child’s questions simply and honestly.

  • Recognize the physical complaints that can accompany grief: Headaches, stomach aches, sleep problems, overt changes in behavior, a loss/increase of appetite, or a return to recently outgrown behaviors (bed-wetting or thumb-sucking).

  • Know the types of reactions to grief that are unhealthy, such as self-harm or destructive behaviors that include cutting, depression, substance use, or talk of suicide. When these symptoms surface, seek out professional counseling for your child.

     

Tim Goldsmith, Ph.D., is chief clinical officer at Youth Villages, where he directs a staff of clinical specialists who oversee the treatment of more than 22,000 children and youth every year.

All parents have moments when they wish they could consult with an expert. If you have a question about your tween or teen’s behavior, send it to DrTim@youthvillages.org. If Dr. Tim and his staff of experts feature your question in a column, he’ll change names and other specifically identifying information.