Grief vs. Misbehavior
Riley Children's Grief Team
Parents often struggle to differentiate between their child expressing grief vs. misbehaving. Some parents express concern that their child may utilize their grief as an excuse to avoid consequences. Many parents struggle to know how to respond to negative behavior from a grieving child.
Like adults, children express their grief in many ways. Children often experience “grief bursts”. A child may be playing and appearing to do well and then suddenly experience a grief burst, which may include crying, shouting, kicking, etc. It can be confusing both for the child and the parent as children often don’t know their burst is related to grief. Keep in mind that children are trying to cope not only with the loss of their sibling, but also the changes that have occurred as a result of that loss. Change is difficult to cope with in the best circumstances and can be completely overwhelming when paired with grief.
Suggestions for when your child experiences a grief burst:
- Listen. Give your full attention and presence.
- Offer help but allow them to express their grief (don’t try to take it away). Consider offering a hug, rocking in a chair, providing comfort, etc. when the child is ready.
- Teach your child coping tools for when they do experience bursts. Some suggestions include finding a quiet space in the house to retreat to, mindful breathing, crying or shouting into a pillow, rocking in a rocking chair, listening to music, journaling, looking at pictures, etc.
- Set clear expectations and boundaries. Ensure your child knows it is ok to have big feelings, but it is not ok to hurt someone or themselves when they experience the big feelings.
- Maintain routines as much as possible. Routines can provide a sense of security and lessen the changes a child may experience.
Consider reading the following resources:
- Responding to Change & Loss – National Alliance for Grieving Children
- NAGC Hero Toolkit – National Alliance for Grieving Children
- Willey, K. (2017). Breathe Like a Bear: 30 Mindful Moments for Kids to Feel Calm and Focused Anytime, Anywhere. United States: Rodale Books.