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Grieving Youth Returning to School

Written by: Katy Percini, MA, LMFT, Mental Health Therapist
Heading back to school after the summer break can be an exciting time for many students. For others, returning to school can cause anxiety, depression, and stress. When a child is grieving the death of a loved one, returning to school can be even more difficult.
Most youth will experience the death of a family member or peer before they graduate from high school. As many as 1 in 20 youth in the United States experience the death of a parent/guardian by the time they turn 16 years old. With 7 out of 10 teachers reporting that they have at least one grieving student in their classroom, acknowledging the impact that grief has on children in school is critical.
Signs of Grief in Youth
Grief symptoms can show up in multiple ways in children. Everyone grieves differently, but there are some commonalities to look out for.
*Struggles with concentration with a possible decline in grades/ quality of school work.
*A feeling of numbness, or feeling like they are disorientated or are in a fog.
*Anger or irritability, with possible outbursts that result in fighting, or acting out in class.
*Overwhelming sadness, without breaks for other feelings like happiness.
*Possible thoughts of suicide.
*A loss of interest in activities that they once enjoyed.
*Over-activity, or over-scheduling themselves to keep busy.
*Isolating from friends and family. Wanting to spend most of their time alone.
*The use of substances like drugs or alcohol.
*Self-harming behaviors such as burning or cutting.
*Physical symptoms of grief, such as headaches, stomachaches, and fatigue. Possible changes in appetite (over or under eating, possible development of an eating disorder).
*Self-blame and guilt about the loss, as if it were possibly their fault.
How to Help Grieving Youth
There are many ways that family members, friends, and communities can help youth who are grieving. Some ideas to try include:
Connecting with the child’s school. Let them know about the loss, and possible grief symptoms to look out for. Find out who can provide support to the child while they are in school (counselors, social workers, advocates, and teachers or staff that can provide safe spaces for grieving youth).
Keeping communication open. Listen and observe. Do not compare their grief to others, as everyone experiences grief differently. Communicating with youth can be challenging, but keep trying to talk to them. They will notice and appreciate that you are trying. Ask them to talk to you not only about their grief, but about school, friends, and interests. Set aside time every week to spend with them to talk, and to also have fun together (examples: seeing a movie, listening to music, playing a game).
Discussing possible grief triggers openly with youth. It can be healing when feelings and reactions to triggers are normalized. Many people feel shame when experiencing triggers, or think that something is wrong with them when they are actually experiencing normal reactions to their grief. Also realize that triggers and feelings of loss may appear unexpectedly for youth throughout their lifespan.
Developing routines. If possible, start developing routines before school starts, such as bedtime/ wake-up time routines, and organizing items for school. Understand that showing grieving youth empathy and flexibility is important, as they may struggle adjusting back to school routines.
Finding outside support if needed. While children and teens may be resistant to the idea of therapy or support groups, most benefit from these services. Find professionals and groups that have experience working with youth experiencing a death loss. There are different types of therapy styles, so research or ask for help finding the right fit. If you are also struggling with grief, find support for yourself as well. Model self-care for yourself so that youth know that it is okay for them to practice self-care as well.
For more information on how to help, please check out The Coalition to Help Grieving Students at grievingstudents.org and the Dougy Center at www.dougy.org.