Grief is never easy, no matter your age. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, a divorce in the family, a pet’s passing, or other significant losses, children often cope differently than the adults in their lives. Knowing that your child has to pass through the pain can make helping your child cope with grief difficult and profoundly upsetting to you as well.
It’s important to acknowledge your own grief. But as a parent, you play an additional and crucial role in helping your child cope with grief. The following strategies can help you as you walk with your child through this time.
1. Be Open and Honest
If your family has experienced a loss, your child will be able to sense that something is wrong even if you don’t tell them right away. Children are remarkably perceptive. As tempting as it can be to try to hide a loss from them, it’s better to tell them as soon as possible.
All experts recommend using real (but age-appropriate) language. Try to avoid euphemisms. For children, euphemisms (“put to sleep,” “passed away,” “left to be with the angels”) can be too confusing.
In addition, try to not hide your own grief when you talk with your kids. It’s ok for them to see you cry and express sadness. They are looking to you for how to behave when someone dies or they experience a sudden loss. When they see that you are openly and expressively sad, their own feelings will be validated.
It is best, though, to not let your kids see you during those times when you are so overcome that you can’t carry on a conversation with them. That can be frightening and more confusing than the grief itself.
2.Keep Their Age (and developmental stage) in Mind
During the bereavement period, quietly notice and observe your children. Pay attention to their cues. As with anyone, they may cycle through a variety of grief expressions and processes. These are most commonly noted as
- denial, bargaining,
- and acceptance/hope.
However, kids will navigate these experiences and emotions differently than adults do. After all, they probably don’t have the vocabulary, emotional maturity, and life experience to even know what these changes mean. As a parent, you know that your child may act out more, display anger and aggression, or withdraw and regress during times of stress. These can all be cues of their grieving process.
Likewise, depending on their previous experiences and how greatly their lives are impacted by the loss, their reactions will vary. If they rarely saw a grandparent, for example, they may not experience great sadness. Yet, news of their parents impending divorce may inspire a more emotional or prolonged reaction.
No matter how they react, be kind, loving, and gentle. Give them room to go through their emotions. Listen well. Reassure them and let them know they’re not alone.
It is also important to take into consideration the developmental stage of the child. Younger children don’t understand the finality of death and may engage in magical thinking. Additionally, play is the language of children so keeping an eye out for changes in their behavior, such as their sleeping and eating patterns, is especially important for children and adolescents.
3. Be Consistent
When it feels like the world is falling apart, maintaining some sort of daily structure helps everyone. This is particularly true of children. They rely on the adults in their life to make sure they continue to be sheltered, fed, clothed, bathed, and entertained. These routines are the way that kids make sense of their days.
It’s ok, of course, if some regular activities and routines fall aside for a time. But try not to let your family life breakdown for an extended period of time.
Finally, if you find yourself getting lost in your own grief, reaching out to a therapist can be very helpful. Likewise, if you notice that your child continues to struggle with symptoms of grief for an extended period of time, consider child or teen counseling for them or support for your family as well. Early intervention can help prevent long-lasting effects of unresolved grief, anxiety, or depression.