Preteens (children between the ages of 9 and 12) go through the same stages of grief as adults. The stages are denial, acute grief and adjustment. The difference is that preteens deal with these stages in very different ways than adults do, according to the California SIDS Program. In addition, they may spend a shorter amount of time in each stage, but revisit the stages periodically as they grow older.
Denial is the first stage of grief in preteens. It is characterized by shock, a feeling of numbness and disbelief, especially if they are grieving over a death. It is not uncommon for younger preteens to believe that death only happens to other people, according to the National Cancer Institute. When it does happen, they may believe that the person “deserved” to die or is being punished. In this case, the preteen will tell herself that there is no reason to be sad — thus denying themselves the permission to grieve. Don’t try to talk a preteen into the reality of the situation. Instead, let her know you are there to talk with her when she needs you and help her come to terms with the tragedy in her own time.
Once a preteen moves beyond denial and begins to accept the reality of the tragedy, he becomes angry. He may lash out, misbehave or get in trouble at school. In some children, acting out indicates a need to act out their feelings of grief, but instead of crying and talking about it, they act out in inappropriate ways instead. Some preteens, on the other hand, do the opposite. They withdraw into themselves. Many even blame themselves for what happened, according to North Dakota State University. And if they don’t blame themselves, they may blame others, which in turn leads to feelings of guilt. Physical symptoms of acute grief in teens include insomnia, a loss of appetite, headaches and stomach aches. Do not let your preteen get away with disrespectful and rude behavior, but also do not respond to anger with anger. Let them know it’s OK to be angry and upset in an appropriate manner. Talking it out or keeping a journal can help a preteen during the acute grief stage.
Preteens may move to the acceptance stage more quickly than expected, but that does not mean they are not still grieving on the inside. As children grow and hit milestones, they are often reminded of their loss, and may revisit some of the stages of grief, according to the National Cancer Institute. Preteens who are grieving over a death will understand that death is permanent at this point. However, they may have questions about the afterlife. They may wonder if there is a heaven, or if a loved one is watching over them like a ghost. Younger preteens may even become a little fearful at such a thought. Keep discussions open with your preteen, and follow up on them frequently as to how they are feeling, especially during events that may remind them of the tragedy.