How to Help Grieving Children
How to Help Grieving Children
- Include children and teens in the mourning process whenever possible and appropriate.
- Maintain routines.
- Listen and provide family talking time.
- Acknowledge intense feelings without trying to "fix" it.
- Give honest answers to questions.
- Get emotional support for yourself.
- Allow the child to be a child rather than trying to fill the shoes either emotionally or in responsibilities for the one who died.
- Lower performance expectations as the family's energy goes toward grieving and emotional healing.
- Get professional help if a family member's behavior is destructive.
Special Consideration for Different Ages
Birth to two years
Grieving infants and toddlers need physical contact for reassurance that they are cared for. Make sure that basic physical needs of comfort and care are met. Maintaining routines will help reinforce a sense of security. Include the child in family gatherings, including mourning times when possible and appropriate.
Two to five years
Answer repetitive questions with simple, honest answers. You may have to repeat the same answer many times as your child struggles to understand what happened and what your answer means in his or her life. Children at this age do not understand the permanence of death. A child may memorize the words that a special person is not coming back, but is not yet able to grasp the permanence of that concept.
Be aware that children sometimes behave as though much younger, even wanting a bottle or pacifier. Allow them to express and meet these needs. Provide safe ways to express feeling. Expect "grief bursts" that may look like an overreaction to a simple event, such as an outburst of tears after dropping a cookie. Provide physical and emotional affection (hugs, smiles, nods, holding time).
Talk with your child. It is okay for the child to know that you are sad, too. When talking with a child, provide something that can be done with his hands, such as a coloring book or modeling clay. It may appear that the child is not listening, yet this is when it may be easiest for him to listen.
Play with the child. For example, when the child asks you to be a monster and chase him, you can say, "I'm a monster and I'm chasing you!". Then follow the child's directions with actions and sounds. Be prepared for the child to play out an imagined or actual death scene over and over as she strives to understand what happened to that special loved one.
Groups are available at Judi's House for children beginning at age 3. Specialized play areas provide many opportunities for expression of feelings.
Six to twelve years
Children need the freedom to choose how to be involved in the death and mourning process. Incorporate the child's expression of love and grief during the funeral or memorial service, if the child so desires.
Going back to school following a death can be a difficult time for children. Children often have difficulty concentrating for several months following a death. Let teachers, principals, and school counselors know of the loss in the child's life. Work with the school to tailor the workload to the child's needs.
Plan intentional times together to talk, grieve, and play. At this age children are interested in the biological processes of death. After clarifying what is being asked, answer their questions truthfully.
Provide safe and appropriate outlets for physical expressions of the intense emotions of grief. Sports activities, bicycling, or punching a pillow provide release of physical tension that builds up during emotional pain. Drawing, music, dancing, acting, and playing all encourage self-expression needed to release pent-up feelings. Expect mood swings as children reach the pre-adolescent years. Emotional distress from the loss is intensified by physical changes.
Watch for feelings of guilt. Children may believe that their words or actions caused the illness or death. When children feel unrealistic guilt for a death, remind them of the facts of the situation. Let them know that the illness or death was not their fault. When children continue to feel unrealistic guilt, acknowledge their feelings and recognize them as difficult. Feeling guilty may delay the difficult awareness of vulnerability until the child is ready to deal with it.
Children often feel different from other children because of the death in their family. Peer support groups like the ones offered at Judi's House give children an opportunity to discover that they are not alone.
The Teen Years
Teens frequently prefer to talk with teen and adult friends rather than sharing feelings with parents and other caregivers. Encourage relationships with other supportive individuals. Be available to listen and share your own honest grief when the teen is ready to talk with you. Answer questions truthfully. Allow teens to cover up their grief if it is basically harmless to themselves and others. At the same time, encourage expression of feelings through sports, music, dancing, writing, or acting.
Going back to school following a death can be a difficult time for teens. It is normal to have difficulty concentrating for several months following a death. Let teachers, principals, and school counselors know of the loss. Work with the school to tailor the workload to the teen's needs.
Watch for changes in peer groups. High-risk behavior is common for teenagers. When emotions are complicated by a significant death loss, high-risk behavior may increase. Keep the lines of communication open with your teen. Be aware of who his or her friends are and where the teen is.
Peer support groups are important for teens. Judi's House offers teen groups that allow grieving teens to come together to support each other through the difficult journey of grief. Teens are welcome to try a group two to three times to see if it is good fit for them.
For more information on how to enroll in a group at Judi's House click here.
For group locations in other areas click here.