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Loss in Children: Making Sure We Don’t Miss It

Over half a century after Bowlby, the impact of loss in children is still far too frequently overlooked. To mark Children’s Grief Awareness Day, child and adolescent psychoanalytic psychotherapist Deirdre Dowling discusses different forms of grief that children may experience, and different ways in which they might express these – and shares the story of one eight-year-old boy who was referred for stealing from lunchboxes.


Losses, both large and small, are part of adult life, but those happening to small children or teenagers may go unnoticed. We can fail to recognise what is important to them until we are brought up short by their difficult behaviour and begin to ask why. As a child psychotherapist, much of my work is about recognising the impact of loss on children, both past and present, helping them begin to mourn, and put their feelings into words.  

Sometimes a child’s unhappiness may be a response to unresolved grief in the family. I remember Tom, an eight year old, whose parents referred him for stealing food from other children’s lunch boxes. His teachers were irate; stealing other children’s food was an emotive issue. When I met Tom in therapy to explore why, this usually balanced boy was bemused as to why he did this but he agreed that, like detectives, we would search for clues together.  

Tom came up with the answer. His stealing had begun after his grandma died. He told me how much he missed her, how his mother had become very sad since then, and everything felt different at home. Sweets and biscuits comforted him but his mother gave him healthy snacks for lunch so he stole from other children. Once his sad feelings were recognised, he and his mother could grieve together, and with some sweets added to his lunch box, his stealing gradually stopped.   

In 1968, John Bowlby, a pioneer in the understanding of grief, examined the natural process of mourning in families. He emphasised that ordinary feelings of grief were often pathologised and that the process of mourning is slow and different for each person. His researchers, James and Joyce Robertson, produced videos showing the acute grief of small children suffering brief separations from their mothers. Their distress had not been recognised before and this led to a change in public health policy. Since then, parents have been encouraged to stay with their children during hospitalisation. 

Yet there is still little understanding of the impact of loss on children. They are often unable to put their feelings into words and so, like Tom, they show their distress in unacceptable behaviour. Bowlby pointed out that numbness and searching, followed by anger and despair, are part of the working through of loss – but such behaviour is often not recognised in children. 

We know from research that loss caused by bereavement, conflictual divorce, or parental mental illness can disrupt children’s emotional development and learning. They can become distracted, lose self-confidence, and withdraw from relationships. 

In bereavement, grieving can be a prolonged process, continuing as children grow up and yearn for the presence of the parent who would have been there to support them at key moments. Following divorce or parental mental illness, children can blame themselves for their parents’ unhappiness, misunderstanding the actual course of events. Parents’ distress and guilt can make it difficult for them to broach the topic with their children so these experiences can remain confused, with persecuting memories that cannot be put to rest.  

Children’s difficult behaviour may have many underlying causes, but distress in the family is often a catalyst. When feelings of grief and loss are recognised and understood by those closest to the children, then their support and empathy can do much to support healing. Sometimes psychotherapy is needed to begin this process, particularly if there are early childhood losses still pre-occupying the young person. Given time and patience, and curiosity in their behaviour, children can rediscover their sense of hope and balance, and engage with life again with renewed energy. 


Deirdre Dowling

Deirdre Dowling is a child, adolescent and adult psychoanalytic psychotherapist trained at the British Psychotherapy Foundation (BPF). She worked for many years as Head Child Psychotherapist at the Cassel Hospital, an NHS inpatient psychotherapeutic hospital, before becoming Curriculum Lead at the Independent Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy training at BPF. She set up the Lantern Family Centre in Bookham, Surrey with a colleague, providing a private therapeutic service for children and families, and training for professionals. She has a particular interest in parent-infant psychotherapy, working with families with complex needs, and teaching and consulting to other professions interested in applying psychoanalytic ideas to their work with families.

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