and Toddler Grief
Typically when a household experiences the permanent or temporary loss
of a loved one, both the adults and children undergo several changes.
However, each person processes and expresses their grief differently.
While one person may want to verbalize their grief reactions, another
may want to draw or write about their grief. In the case of infants and
toddlers, many believe that they do not experience grief merely because
they cannot intelligently draw, write, or verbalize their grief. This
is far from the truth. Infants and toddlers grieve the loss of loved ones
similar to verbal children and adults. They are able to “sense”
the loss of someone’s voice, touch, and smile. However, their grief
reactions may also be in response to what they sense from their caregivers.
For example, children sense when a primary caregiver has a depressed mood
or is not as playful, and as a result that child may become irritable.
Therefore, the most important element when helping infants and toddlers,
who are grieving or are residing with a parent or primary caregiver that
is grieving, is maintaining a consistent routine.
who were once dependent on caregivers for keeping them safe may begin
to feel disconnected and vulnerable. Therefore, we need to restore that
sense of safety, one way is by maintaining a routine. This will restore
the child’s ability to once again depend on you to meet their basic
needs. After attempting a “new” routine, you may notice that
they are somewhat scattered and are having difficulty adjusting. This
is normal and typical behavior. Nevertheless, you should sustain a steady
routine. For example, if their nap time is set for 12:30 p.m., you should
keep that nap time the same everyday. By preserving that same time, regardless
of their need for sleep, you are letting the child know that they can
depend on you for their basic needs. Which is essential for restoring
Decrease in Activity Level
Infants who were attempting to rollover, crawl, and walk prior to the
loss or separation may stop any attempts for movement. Adults may describe
the infant or toddler as “lethargic” or “limp.”
This is a temporary state and after some time your little one will begin
to attempt these movements again. However, it is important to offer
infants/toddlers the opportunity for movement and play, even if day
after day they choose not to participate. It is essential for you to
continue to play and encourage, but not coerce, those attempts at movement
several times a day if possible.
Due to change in routine and caregiver, young children often experience
high anxiety. While they are becoming familiar with their new routine
you may notice an increase in irritability and, most likely, a decrease
in appetite. There may also be a weight loss. If the child’s decrease
in eating and weight loss continues for several weeks, it is important
to have a check-up with the child’s family doctor or pediatrician.
However, typically the infant/toddler will adjust and begin eating the
same amounts as before the loss or separation. It is also common for
infants and toddlers to choose the same types of foods for every meal
or have “comfort foods.” Yes, even infants and toddlers
use food for comfort. However, be sure s/he is still receiving healthy
amounts of vitamins and nutrients. There is nothing wrong with continuing
a diet that the infant or toddler chooses, but never stop attempts at
foods high in nutrients and supplements.
in Irritability and/or Change in Personality
Caregivers often report that grieving infants and toddlers, typically
experience irritability. Again, this is most likely due to a change
in their daily routine. In general, when there is a change in any child’s
routine, there will be some amount of stress, which will cause irritability
and/or a change in personality. Parents often describe their child as,
“unlike their usual playful self.” However, once the child
becomes adjusted to his/her new schedule they typically return to the
infant you knew prior to the trauma. Nevertheless, when a child is grieving
a permanent loss or separation of a parent, it may take this little
one several weeks or months to become adjusted. There may be some permanent
personality changes, which is healthy and normal. Trauma changes how
individuals see themselves, even infants and toddlers. The key is to
support this child’s changes, permanent or not.
Once again a severe change in routine will also affect sleeping patterns.
The infant must again learn to trust their caregiver. So, be sure to
provide him/her the individual attention s/he needs. This may include
sleeping in the room or being present while they fall asleep. The sleeplessness
should deplete over time. We do NOT recommend that caregivers allow
infants and toddlers to sleep in the adult bed with caregivers. There
are several safety concerns and an increased risk for accidents coinciding
with infants sleeping beside adults. Alternatively, the infant or toddler
may sleep in a portable crib near the primary caregiver’s bed.
As each night passes progressively move the crib further away from the
caregiver’s bed and closer to the room where their bed will remain
permanently. Always be sure the crib is in a safe area and well protected.
While this appears as a “hassle” to many adults, it a much
healthier way to help these little ones adjust and everyone is sleeping
in their OWN beds, adults included.
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Parents Trauma Resource Center
www.tlcinstitute.org • 877-306-5256
© TLC Institute 2004