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When bullying contributes to feelings of grief and loss in kids

August 24, 2015

Parents often struggle with the realization that their children feel grief and loss, and we struggle to know exactly how to support them through it. Just as it is important for adults to process their grief to promote healing, children need the same opportunities, along with guidance from the trusted adults in their lives to navigate grief in a positive and healthy way.

Today, we’ll talk about how bullying can contribute to feelings of grief and loss. Join me again in a few weeks when we’ll continue this series by discussing how to help children navigate the losses they suffer through divorce and difficult life transitions.

What is grief and what does it look like?

Grief can take many different forms for people—adults and children alike. Naturally, when a person thinks of the word “grief” they automatically think of “death.” However, this isn’t always the case. Many experiences can arise in a person’s life that can bring up a feeling of loss. Sometimes, a person can feel grief or loss and not fully understand why they are feeling it or what the loss actually is, which in turn can make this feel very difficult to manage.

This type of grief is often described as “ambiguous loss.”

Children may experience feeling this type of loss during times that adults may not consider much of a challenge or they may assume that the children will only be temporarily bothered by the event that has caused distress. However, as children and adults are vastly different in many ways, some situations may have a more profound effect on children and may take longer to process.

A few characteristics of ambiguous loss that children may exhibit are:

  • Feelings of guilt
  • Lack of trust
  • Being overwhelmed when asked to make decisions
  • Difficulty with transitions
Just as children’s personalities and preferences are unique, so are their behavioral responses to grief and loss. In this series, three different scenarios that many children encounter will be explored. This is not all-encompassing list of experiences so remain aware of similar or related ambiguous encounters your children may be exposed to so you can provide support for their feelings and behaviors.

Bullying can cause feelings of loss for a child

Ambiguous loss may be present not only for the child that is being bullied, but also for the child who is performing the act of bullying. For the victim, a loss of identity, social status, friendships, and self-worth can be profound and feel debilitating. There may also be a sense of embarrassment that they cannot make the bullying stop or even fear that they cannot take care of themselves or trust an adult to help them. Many children may wonder what they did to deserve being bullied, and some may feel they’ve identified a reason while others spend years attempting to figure out why they were a victim. The lack of understanding “why” or what they feel they are missing, but knowing that the pain they feel is very real is an example of ambiguous loss.

While many may view the bully themselves as the dominant person, power may not be what is driving the child to perform this hurtful behavior towards someone else. A bully may be experiencing the feeling of a loss of control in their own lives, which may push them to take out their anger, frustration and helplessness on someone else they feel they can control. For many who bully, the act of doing so may feel empowering and even relieving to see someone else hurt or potentially feeling the same feelings that they may be experiencing themselves. While this in no way justifies the behavior of a bully, it can be an important factor to examine.

Many children are caught in situations that are very stressful or upsetting, and they feel lost and alone. Ambiguous loss becomes as much of a stressor to a bully as it does to the victim. One concept that both a bully and the victim may have in common is that they are both experiencing fear, hurt, or anger and neither one of them are likely to understand why.

How to provide support

When providing support to children in either situation, examining the dynamics around them is a healthy place to start. A child whose family is in transition, such as a move, new marriage, divorce, an ill family member, or even a situation that is emotionally, physically, or mentally abusive is likely to experience high stress levels. These situations are challenging enough for adults to cope with, much less children, and children are more likely to demonstrate their difficulties in physical or emotional ways.

Children do not have a full awareness of how to cope effectively with feelings that may seem out of place or context and need adults to help guide them towards effective coping strategies such as talking about their feelings with a trusted adult, journaling, art, storytelling, or scrapbooking. With these new tools, children are more likely to feel a greater sense of control and a confidence in how to manage their stressors more efficiently.