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All About the Link Between Thumb Sucking and Grief

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Death is an inevitable part of life. The profound loss of a beloved family member is frightening, confusing, and painful for children. Young children don’t understand what has happened or why they can’t see their loved one anymore.

Kids react to loss and grief in different ways depending on their developmental stage. Adults who are also grieving can still find ways to comfort and support a child who has suffered a loss.

Although kids will react differently according to their personalities and age, you may notice some common reactions when a child loses a loved one. Learn all about the link between thumb sucking and grief and how understanding a child’s reaction to loss will help you find ways to reassure them.

Common Reactions to Grief in Children

Child psychologists and educators have identified several categories of reactions in grieving children. Some mimic the famous Kubler-Ross stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) explained in her book, On Death and Dying.

However, Kubler-Ross revised her stages of grief to reflect a process that isn’t necessarily linear, with one following the other, but rather a series of stages that people move in and out of. She added two other stages: shock and testing. Her co-author of a follow-up book called On Grief and Grieving, David Kessler, has authored a new book adding another stage, Finding Meaning.

Reactions to Loss

Like grieving adults, children may process grief by moving in and out of different types of reactions. These typically include several of the following.

Shock: A child who has lost a loved one may experience shock, feeling suddenly insecure or fearful of what will happen to their parents and themselves if illness or injury strikes your family. Kids may be unusually clingy or anxious, worrying about who will leave them next.

Anger and Tantrums: Young children are naturally concerned that someone is helping them meet their basic needs, including food, shelter, and a sense of security and safety. When a loved one dies, they may feel abandoned and angry, asking why the person left or why doctors didn’t make the person better. They may melt down and throw tantrums.

Guilt: It’s common for young children to think that they are at fault for a loved one’s death. They may think that if they misbehaved in some way, their actions contributed to their parent’s or grandparent’s passing.

Physical Ailments: Kids may react to loss with tummy aches, vague “owies,” or headaches.

Regression: Children who have outgrown bed-wetting or thumb sucking may revert to these behaviors as a reaction to loss. This is where the link between grief and thumb-sucking is most clear and noticeable.

Sleep Disturbances, Eating Problems, Isolation, and Oppositional Behavior: All kids may display these behaviors, but kids beyond the toddler years have more dramatic ways of displaying them. These behaviors can range from door slamming and refusing to eat dinner to engaging in risky or self-harming behavior.

If symptoms are severe or persistent, talk to your pediatrician or a trusted community member who may be able to offer advice on how to help your child. Remember that each individual has their own grief timeline, and there is no way to define grief’s duration.

Coping With Regressive Behavior

Kids who revert to thumb-sucking after a loss are doing the best thing they know how to do to comfort themselves. Children experiencing loss for the first time may not know how to behave or what acceptable behaviors are.

Make sure your child knows that crying or feeling sad is OK and that these are normal behaviors after what has happened. Be available for hugs and support. Don’t push on regressive behaviors. If your child returns to bed wetting, simply deal with it and remember that it is temporary. Don’t shame or blame a child who is grieving.

The same is true for thumb sucking. When your child has had time to process the absence of their loved one, you can gently re-introduce methods to stop the thumb sucking habit. But give your child time to indicate that they have found other means of self-comfort, such as a favorite stuffed animal or a distracting toy.

How To Help a Grieving Child

Honesty is critically important to help a child process the loss of a beloved family member. Euphemisms, such as referring to death as a kind of sleep, may only scare and confuse a child.

Young children may ask you when the deceased is coming back. Tell them the truth, explain that the person can’t come back, and offer some alternative activity to help them process. For example, a memory book can help the child understand that while they can’t see the person anymore, they can still remember and celebrate them through pictures, stories, and more.

Use simple concrete explanations to answer a child’s many questions, and prepare to exercise extreme patience in answering the same questions repeatedly. Let your child talk about how they are feeling, and make sure the child knows that their feelings of sadness, confusion, and even anger are acceptable. However, it’s crucial to also communicate that these feelings will pass one day.

Maintain routines as much as possible. Obviously, if your child visited the departed loved one regularly, they can’t do that anymore. Instead, substitute in an activity that allows you to share happy memories of the deceased person. You can do little things to honor them that help your child understand that they will always have these memories. Look at photo albums, or make stories or drawings about activities the child enjoyed doing with the person who is now gone.

Your local public library may have a wonderful selection of age-appropriate books that can help your child understand death, memories, grief, and how life goes on. You can read these together.

Just spending quiet time with your child can also help. Get out the old glider from the nursery days or the favorite rocking chair, and even if your child has gotten a little too big for it, spend some time rocking together. Cry together, and validate your child’s feelings, even if they can’t find words to describe them.

Don’t exclude children from ceremonies of grief. Children can benefit from being included in these practices, with the exception of infants, who won’t understand what’s happening, or kids who make it clear they don’t want to attend. These moments can help children process grief and heal from sadness because they offer the chance to say a final goodbye.

The link between grief and thumb sucking is something psychologists have documented—and how you react to regressive thumb-sucking is important to your child’s emotional well-being. Given time, the child will outgrow the habit once again and discover how to think of their lost loved one with happy memories instead of tears.

All About the Link Between Thumb Sucking and Grief