By Dr. Anthony Policastro

The stages of grief are well defined. They consist of: denial, anger, bargaining, mourning and acceptance. While all individuals grieve, children tend to do it differently. They tend to go through the process at a different pace.

We sometimes forget that children handle a grieving process a little differently depending on their age. That means when we deal with events like school shootings, we have to adjust our methods of counseling to the age of the child.

In addition, not all children of the same age are at the same developmental level. That means there is some flexibility required. The treatment for each age group varies with that developmental level.

Children in kindergarten and first grade tend to behave like the 3 – 5 year old age groups do. In many cases the loss of a classmate causes a concern that it could happen to them. Alternatively, it could happen to a parent. The result is a concern about separation anxiety. They may become more clingy. 

They may not want to leave home to go to school. Some of that is due to the return to where the event occurred. Some of that is due to the concern that they may not see their parent again if they leave them.

Another key issue in this age group is what is called magical thinking. This group of children often think that what they wish for might come true. If there is a bully in class and that bully was among the victims, the child might think he/she caused it. They might believe that death is not permanent. They might think the individual is coming back.

For children in elementary school (ages 6 – 11 years), their reaction is more emotional. They understand the permanence of death. They may develop concerns about the safety of others. They may become obsessed with death and dying as a topic. They might develop post traumatic stress type nightmares.

This group is the one most likely to have a decrease in school performance. They become distracted in that environment. They have issues with social interactions. These kinds of things can be disruptive to studying.

Middle school students are social beings. Their desire to fit in often leads to underlying social anxiety. Loss of a classmate in their social group will have a big impact. There is also psychological entity called survivor’s guilt. This means that they feel guilty for not being with those who died.

Sometimes, they react with anger at death. This takes the form of various risk taking behaviors. Those behaviors might include seeking escape through drug use. 

High school students begin to approach adult reactions in the mourning process. However, there are still differences. They may not manage the emotions in the grieving process as well as an adult does. They may have suicidal ideas or have self harm. They may stop eating and they may stop attending school. 

All of these things are the type of hyperemotional response that might be expected in adolescence. 

Treating children in these situations provides a unique set of challenges. Perhaps the best treatment is prevention of the occurrence in the first place.