Coping with the loss of a loved one is difficult at any age. But for children who experience grief at a young age, the effects of this loss may continue into adulthood. There are quite a few ways grieving when you're young changes you in general.
For the most part, being changed by grief is almost inevitable. "Every moment in our lives 'changes your brain' because unlike bone and muscle its not meant to stay constant," says Dr. Rahul Jandial MD, PhD, and author of Neurofitness. "Grief is one of the most impactful experiences in any person's (brain's) life and particularly so when we are young and our brains are the most plastic and thereby impressionable." The individual's exact age and circumstances at the time of loss make a difference as well, but grief will likely hurt anyone who is old enough to grasp the concept.
Learning to grief in an effective way (as strange as that sounds) may help people come to terms with the loss. "The goal, through support groups is to let the loss go deep, but in a positive way," says Dr. Jandial. Children who get this kind of support from a young age may benefit most, but there is always time to address your old pains and losses later in life. Even if early grief has left you with some emotional scars, there are many resources to help cope with this loss. It's never too late to get help.
If the loss is not addressed during childhood, then the grieving person may be at a greater risk for anxiety later on. "The question becomes how intense experiences in childhood and adolescence get processed by the brain," says Dr. Jandial. "If ignored, they tend to resurface in other areas causing anxiety." Techniques such as deep breathing and journaling can help relieve anxiety in the moment, and seeking cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with a trained therapist may help identify and address the causes of anxiety, as explained in Healthline. Even if a person's childhood grief does turn into anxiety later in life, there are many ways to manage this common condition.
Potential For Substance Abuse
Feelings of grief may cause some people to use drugs or alcohol as a way to manage the pain. "Research has shown that the loss of a parent or sibling in early life can increase the likelihood of substance abuse," says Dr. Michel Mennesson, psychiatrist at Newport Academy. That said, a great support group can help shield a person from these potentially troublesome effects. "However, studies have also shown that whether or not the loss has long-lasting effects into adulthood depends on the quality of relationships with surviving family members, and whether the child or teen received appropriate care, information, and social support following the death," says Dr. Mennesson. In general, grieving children with strong social support network tend to experience fewer negative consequences from their loss, according to the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.
Experiencing a loss early in life may also increase a person's tendency to deal with depression, as Dr. Mennesson tells Romper. Like anxiety, symptoms of depression can also be addressed with the help of a therapist or doctor.
An early experience with grief may also complicate a person's relationships with others. "A traumatic loss at a young age—especially when compounded by a lack of appropriate social support and honest communication about the death—may have a negative impact in adulthood in regard to trust, relationships, self-esteem, feelings of loneliness and isolation, and the ability to express emotions," says Dr. Mennesson. To get help with these issues, you can contact a therapist in your area for more help, as noted by Psychology Today.
Fear Of Healthy Risks
Making big changes in adulthood, such as a career switch or cross-country move, may be more difficult for those who experienced grief at a young age. "After bereavement in childhood or adolescence, adults may experience the world as an unsafe place, and thus be less likely to take healthy risks in the areas of relationships or career," says Dr. Mennesson. To get more comfortable with the idea of healthy risks, you can speak with mentors who have overcome similar challenges, or (of course) meet with a counselor. And truth be told, many people have experienced loss early in life and gone on to find love and happiness both in their personal and professional lives.
Healthy Brain Networks Established
The effects of early grief don't have to be entirely negative. "When one goes through the grieving process correctly (not suppressing, acknowledging, talking to someone, creating actionable steps to manage the pain, accepting it will take time) healthy brain networks are established," says Dr. Caroline Leaf, a neuroscientist, mental health & mind expert, and the bestselling author of Think, Learn, Succeed: Understanding and Using Your Mind To Thrive at School, the Workplace, and Life. "A person will never forget what happened, but rather the pain is resolved." With that in mind, a person is not expected to go through this process alone. If you or a loved one needs support in a time of grief, contact an organization such as The Dougy Center, which offers grief resources for both children and adults.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.