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Helping Children Deal With Grief

Helping Children Deal With Grief

It's natural for adults to want to protect the children they love from pain and sorrow. However, it's impossible to protect anyone from the realities of life. Inevitably, some sort of loss with impact every child. It might be the death of a pet, a house fire, or losing a grandparent. No matter what triggers the grief, when it happens the children impacted will feel pain, anxiety, and heartbreak. Adults must also manage their feelings about the loss while helping their kids cope.

Offering a Sense of Safety Through Boundaries

Kids thrive when they have consistency. That consistency includes boundaries. Let kids know that basic expectations are still in place. It's not okay for kids to be rude, break things, refuse to do homework, or avoid necessary chores. If a child does start regularly pushing back against boundaries it's usually a sign they aren't coping well with the grief and that they need more support, including professional help.

Letting Go of Expectations

Every child will react differently to grief. Some might bury themselves in homework, while another, who once was on the honor roll, starts failing classes. One child might need to talk about the loss and the grief regularly, and another child might not want to talk about it all. Kids need clear rules and to maintain a normal routine, but adults need to understand that they may need to be flexible with some expectations, within the bounds of consistency and in support of the child's overall well-being. It's normal for kids to experience some behavioral regression, sleep issues, mood disturbances, and problems at school. Stay supportive and seek help if needed.

  • When Children Grieve: 7 Strategies to Help Them Cope: It's important to be flexible with expectations. Each child will grieve differently, and some kids will regress. A five-year-old who long ago stopped sucking their thumb will sometimes start again.

  • How Grief May Affect Children (PDF): The way a child reacts to grief depends on their personality, their age, and the support they receive during the process.

  • How to Handle Grief: It's normal for children to revisit the stages of grief as they hit each new stage of development.

Encourage Children to Express Emotions

Kids do best when surrounded by adults who can model their feelings and how to work through them without burdening the child with caring for them or without losing control of their emotions. Kids surrounded by adults who bottle up their emotions and don't express their feelings about grief are less likely to express and work through their own feelings. How do adults model talking about grief in a healthy manner? By saying things like "I really miss [lost loved one] right now" or "I'm feeling really sad" instead of saying things like "I can't take this" or "Things will never be okay again."

Stick to a Routine

During times of grief, plan family schedules may need to be changed and this can be hard for young children who rely on routines to feel safe and secure. When plan needs to change to accommodate important services or activities, talk about the plans and changes to the routine ahead of time. This gives children a chance to process some of the changes. It can also be helpful to include familiar faces, family and close friends, in any necessary childcare during these times, as it can be helpful to maintain important routines. It may be important to a family to have kids be with family and attend events like funerals, however, it's also important to get them back to their normal daily lives as soon as possible so that they understand that their lives must continue.

Listen Without Judgment

It's important to listen when children talk. Grieving children may need to talk about all their feelings, their worries, their concerns, and all the ways they are grappling with understanding their loss. It's not helpful to be told not to be upset. The child is already upset. It's more effective to listen and offer reassurance when acceptable. It's also important to correct any misunderstandings the child has about what happened.

Answering Questions: Even The Hard Ones

Children and teens often struggle to understand loss and understand how their lives will proceed. Adults must give age-appropriate answers to all the questions kids have. These questions can be triggering for adults and hard to answer. It's a good idea to consider the kinds of questions a child may have and work on some basic answers before speaking with them. That way kids will get the information they need.

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