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 for Children, Teens, and Adults

All children grieve in different ways.  Listed below are some common ways that children grieve and when those signs become warning signs for further attention.

Brush Strokes Art Therapy
Brush Strokes Art Therapy
Brush Strokes Art Therapy

Common Signs of a Grieving Child

• Academic performance has


• Attention span decreases:

child cannot focus on
specific tasks/no longer have
an interest in things they once

• Sleeping problems: cannot

sleep alone, nightmares/
terrors, does not sleep as
much or is sleeping too much.

• Fighting more with siblings,

surviving family members,
and/or peers.

• Clinging more, does not want

to be left alone.


• Does not talk about the person
they are missing.


When Common Signs are Warning Signs


• Interest in school has decreased, child may no longer want to go to school or refuses to attend.  Child may skip school, skip classes, or ask to go home early.


• Child cannot focus to the point that they cannot complete simple tasks.  Lack of desire to do enjoyable activities and/or be with friends.


• When the child cannot sleep alone, they may only want to sleep in your bed with you or with a sibling.  Child does not want to get out of bed and showing decline.


• Fighting with family and peers is getting excessive or aggressive.  Child is taking out their grief anger on others.

• Child does not want to be alone and is showing separation anxiety when a parent or sibling leaves the room, goes to the store/work/school. Child may fear that you may not be returning.

• Refuses to talk about the deceased.  Child is possibly withholding reminiscing to protect others from feeling sad or from crying.


Brush Strokes Art Therapy
Brush Strokes Art Therapy

Art Therapy and Children's Grief

A death in the family can draw attention away from the needs of the children. When a parent dies, for example, the surviving parent's grief can interfere temporarily with the ability to care for the emotional, or even the physical needs of the children (Kastenbaum, R. pg.333).  

Children that I have worked with have regularly expressed that they learn to "grow up quick".  Children start to take on more responsibilities at home and instinctually start to become protective of their parent/s.  They have stated that it is difficult to express their grief outwardly because of fearing to upset their family. At times when a child wants to reminisce, cry, ask questions, or just be sad or upset,  they notice that their actions tend to upset their parent and make them cry or become sad or angry.  The child's magical thinking causes them to feel responsible for the parent's sadness and tears.  The child quickly learns to not express their grief to therefore protect their parent.  When this happens, the child is not able to work through their own issues of loss.  Feeling alone and unequiped to deal with their own grief can lead to poor coping skills.

Mask Making:  When working with children using art to talk about grief, I first discuss looking at emotions and body language and what they look like and feel like.  We discuss what colors might represent those feelings and how no color has one meaning (BLUE can mean sadness or coolness, happiness, water and sky or tears).  The children are encouraged to find what colors work best for them.  They are then directed to decorate the inside and outside of a mask using colors to represent their feelings.  The outside of the mask represents the feelings that they show to others and the inside of the mask represents the feelings that they keep to themselves (the inside and outside could be the same or different depending on the child).  

Through all of the years that I have used this exercise there are some pretty common themes seen in grieving children.  Children stated that the outside of their mask showed something different than on the inside.  They might act like they are happy or funny or brave when inside they are sad, angry, or confused.

They state that sometimes they do show their true feelings on the outside but feel conflicted at times when they do (display their anger but in a negative way that results in hurting someone and getting in trouble, or feeling happy because the deceased is "at peace, or no longer in pain" and feeling embarassed for not feeling sad).  

Children used art to explore some very mature and difficult discussions on feelings and grief.  All of their emotions and reactions were discussed as normal grief responses. They were then directed to brainstorm positive ways to safely release anger, anxiety, and stress as well as encouraged to cry and find someone they felt safe sharing their feelings with.  

Through these exercises the children learn about all the different types of emotions, why we "wear a mask" and how it can protect us at times and how it can also harm us if we never show our true selves, as well learn positive coping skills that they can use throughout their lives.


Kastenbaum, R.. (2009). Death, Society, and the Human Experience. (Tenth    Edition).  Boston: Allyn & Bacon.