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Can Children Grow as a Result of Loss?

You may be surprised to know that they can.

Key points

  • Growth can occur not in spite of loss but because of it.
  • The more a person is willing to think about their loss, the more likely they will grow from the experience.
  • Research has demonstrated growth from loss among children, adolescents and adults.

In my series on loss, I have talked about the little losses of everyday life, how children understand death, how to introduce the topic of death to children and what a child may feel when they lose a loved one. But something I have not talked about is the fact that, as hard as losing a loved one is for a child, they can also grow as a result of the experience.

This may come as a surprise.

But many people, including children and teens, not only manage to survive difficult losses, but they can also grow as a result of their experience with loss.

Scientists who study trauma and loss have found that there can be a variety of positive psychological changes for some people following challenging life experiences.

Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi called this “posttraumatic growth.” They mentioned the following positive changes as being prominent for many people:

  • Greater appreciation of life
  • Greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships
  • Increased compassion and altruism
  • The identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life
  • Greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths
  • Enhanced spiritual development
  • Creative growth

And, as it turns out, one crucial factor that allows people to turn a difficult event into one that promotes growth is the extent to which they explore their thoughts and feelings around that event.

Many people prefer "to look on the bright side" and not focus on the difficult things that happen to them. In fact, one young woman who sees me in therapy told me that when she hurt herself as a child, her mother used to say, “Pretend that didn’t happen”.

However, Calhoun and Tedeschi found that the ability to acknowledge that the event has happened and to think about and process the painful feelings associated with the event are what allow some people to grow from their difficult experiences.[i]

Two other researchers, Todd Kashdan and Jennifer Kane, also studied this subject. Using a group of college students, they looked at how much people tend to avoid difficult and painful thoughts and feelings versus how much they are willing to allow them. In their study, the most frequently reported traumas amongst their subjects included the sudden death of a loved one, motor vehicle accidents, witnessing violence in the home, and natural disasters.

Kashdan and Kane found that the greater the distress the person experienced, the greater the posttraumatic growth that resulted from it—but only in those people who did not avoid their feelings, or who did so infrequently.

These findings support the benefits of encouraging children to experience and talk about their feelings following loss. It also supports the importance of having children and teens who are having difficulty experiencing or expressing their feelings get involved in some form of expressive psychotherapy, whether that be individual, group, or family therapy.

Another researcher, Jessica Koblenz specifically studied children who had lost a parent to find out what helps and what hinders them in their grief process. And she also found that there is growth from loss. One child in her study said they had a heightened sense of life and didn’t want to waste time or have regrets. Another said he had become more independent. Some mentioned that they learned to seek help from those who were able to provide it. Some found that exercise was a good method for coping with painful feelings, and others found humor helpful.

Teigan, a young woman I met through Winston’s Wish, told me that what happened to her after she lost her mother shaped what she wanted to do with her life. She described how one of her teachers at school called her every week after her mother died and provided her with much needed attention, support, and guidance. This teacher was an inspiration for Teigan, and she decided to become a grief counselor for children and teens so that she could help other students, just as her teacher had helped her. In the meantime, she was training to lead grief groups just like the one she had participated in herself.

For years, Calhoun and Tedeschi studied the positive effects of trauma—including loss. They also found that some individuals who had suffered significant trauma experienced positive changes. These changes include improved relationships, new possibilities for life, a greater appreciation for life, a greater sense of personal strength, and increased spiritual development.

They also found some interesting contradictions. People they interviewed said things like, “I am more vulnerable, yet stronger.” Individuals who experienced traumatic events tended to talk about their increased sense of vulnerability; however, these same people also reported an increased sense of their own capacities to survive and prevail.

Another experience often reported by trauma survivors was a need to talk with other people about the traumatic events, which tended to deepen some of their personal relationships. Some also found themselves becoming more comfortable with intimacy and having a greater sense of compassion for others who experienced life difficulties.[I]

Calhoun and Tedeschi also found that some people who faced trauma were more likely to become engaged with fundamental existential questions about death and the purpose of life. A commonly reported change was for the individual to value the smaller things in life more and to also consider the religious, spiritual, and existential components of life. A common theme for many people in this study was that after a traumatic event, philosophies of life can become more fully developed, satisfying, and meaningful.[II]

In a study of what helps and hinders children and adolescents who lose a parent, Jessica Koblenz found multiple areas of growth in many of the children she interviewed.[III]

Seventy-three percent of the participants in her study felt that navigating and understanding death at an early age made them grow up faster.

It is interesting to think about whether “growing up faster” is a form of growth or a toll that is paid by children who have experienced early loss. I suspect that some children might consider it a form of growth, some might feel it was a toll they paid, and some might feel that it is both.

Some children in Koblenz’s study said they responded to loss by embracing life. One said, “I have a heightened sense of life, not wasting time, and not having regrets.” According to some grief theorists, this renewed sense of life is an adaptive form of meaning-making following loss.[IV]

Many of the children Koblenz interviewed said that support helped them to get through their loss. This finding is important because traditional psychological and psychiatric views of bereavement have minimized the role of relationships and support from others in coping with loss. However, more recently, evidence has shown that relational support plays a crucial role in a child’s ability to cope after a loss and may actually improve and intensify some existing relationships.

Interestingly, participants in Koblenz’s study stated that their most helpful source of support was other mourning children who could relate to their exact position.

Koblenz also found that becoming self-reliant was a coping strategy that some of the participants in her study utilized. In her study, kids said that they began to rely more on themselves once they decided that they could no longer depend on others. For some, it was easier to express they “were strong” and “could handle it alone” than to acknowledge their loneliness.[V]

Koblenz says that the sentiment of “needing to be strong” was expressed by many participants and reflected their inability to convey vulnerability. As one participant said of her childhood loss, “Everyone always said, ‘You’re so strong.’ No one ever said, ‘It’s okay if you’re not.’” From this Koblenz concluded that applauding children’s ability to handle their grief alone may make it difficult for them to feel they can be completely open and show their vulnerable selves. But some participants were able to find a balance of healthy independence while still reaching out to others in times when they needed help.[VI]


[i] Lawrence G. Calhoun and Richard G. Tedeschi, “The Foundations of Posttraumatic Growth: An Expanded Framework,” in Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth: Research and Practice, ed. Calhoun and Tedeschi (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006), 3–23.

[ii] Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun, “Posttraumatic Growth: A New Perspective on Psychotraumatology,” Psychiatric Times 21, no. 4 (April 1, 2004).

[iii] Jessica Koblenz, “Growing from Grief: Qualitative Experiences of Parental Loss,” Omega 73, no. 3 (March 2015): 203–230.

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