We all experience loss in our lives. It can shake us, rip us apart, and unite us with others all at once. And no matter how many times we face it, it never gets any easier.
These symptoms and reactions aren’t limited to adults, either. Children often feel grief just as strongly as adults do. The difference? Most adults can understand and articulate loss and their feelings surrounding it. Children are not always capable of that.
If your family has suffered a loss recently, your children may be displaying stages of grief. If you’re not quite sure how to help them navigate their emotions through the grieving process, keep reading for support on how to help a child cope with grief.
Common Grief Reactions by Age
Many factors can influence how children react to grief:
- Relationship to the deceased
- Prior exposure to death or loss
- Social-emotional development
- Ability to manage stress and emotions
- Family dynamics or circumstances
- How others are grieving
- Support available
However, the age of a child impacted by grief usually offers the greatest insights. Based on what we know about children and their development throughout childhood, we can reasonably anticipate a child’s ability to understand death or loss by how old they are.
While babies and toddlers aren’t quite able to grasp the concept of death, they are able to pick up on loss. Feelings of abandonment, insecurity, and sadness can be experienced when someone significant in their lives is no longer there.
Common reactions to grief include increased crying and irritability, the desire to be held more frequently, searching or asking for the deceased person, loss of interest in eating or playing, and a regression in previously reached milestones.
Children in the preschool and kindergarten years are beginning to understand death, but struggle to accept the permanence of death. They may believe that death is temporary and reversible, or that the deceased will return and carry on with their lives again soon.
At this age, it’s important not to use phrases like “passed away” or “went to sleep.” These euphemisms can cause confusion for children who tend to interpret things quite literally.
Expected responses to grief include increased irritability, aggression, and tantrums. Temporary regression—like bed wetting or thumb sucking—is also common. Like babies and toddlers, children at this age may cry or call out for the deceased person. Additionally, they may associate something “bad” they did—such as not cleaning their room—with the loss and feel responsible for it.
School-aged children, tweens, and pre-teens know that death is permanent. However, they may begin to develop anxiety and fear about their own death—or the death of more loved ones—as they realize death is inevitable.
As they work through these realizations and emotions, they may ask questions that seem disrespectful or out of place. Handle their curiosity with grace. They’re only looking for answers!
Common reactions to grief include feeling guilt or accepting blame for the death, having separation anxiety, and experiencing physical disruptions like headaches, stomachaches, or difficulty sleeping. Children may also appear “checked out”—distracted, forgetful, apathetic, or quiet—or experience dramatic behavioral shifts such as tantrums or aggression.
Teenagers have a firm grip on the concept of death. They know it is permanent and a natural part of life. But even with this adult knowledge, their developing minds and bodies usually lack adult coping skills.
Due to their frequent emotional ups and downs, teenagers may have different needs at different times throughout the grieving process. They may want more alone time or they might want to spend more time with friends and family. As they develop their independence, they often struggle to ask for help or support.
Checking in with your teen is important in times of grief. Set aside time—like in the morning before school or during family dinner—for regular conversations with them about where they’re at and how they’re feeling. Continued involvement throughout their stages of grief can help them feel safe and prevent them from engaging in risky behaviors.
In addition to the reactions above, teenagers may use humor to attempt to cope with or mask their feelings. They may start to question their faith—if they have one—or ask deeper questions about death, mortality, and spirituality. They can act out or behave abnormally, causing changes in self-esteem. Feelings of extreme sadness or even depression can also set in.
With regular check-ins and conversation, you can keep a close watch on your teen as they heal.
Grief Techniques for Children
In circumstances as delicate as death and loss, it can be difficult to know how to help a child cope with grief. You don’t want to say or do the wrong thing—you want to be helpful and supportive.
If your child is suffering a loss, try some of these grief techniques for children:
Ideas for Younger Children
- Use art, books, or games to help your child understand and cope with death.
- Answer your child’s questions in an honest, clear, and age-appropriate way.
- Provide plenty of physical affection—like holding your child or rocking them to sleep—if they ask for it or appear upset.
- Talk to your child about sadness. Let them know that their sad feelings will come and go over time.
- Keep routines as consistent as possible. Consistency will help your child feel safe.
Ideas for Older Children
- If your family has any, share your religious or spiritual beliefs about death with your child.
- Encourage your child to communicate their feelings in a journal or through art or music—however they prefer to express themselves creatively.
- Have an open conversation with your child about their grief as well as your own.
- Nudge your child to spend time with friends or do something fun outside of the house.
- With your child, brainstorm ways you can remember the deceased or keep them in your thoughts.
If necessary, remember that therapy or counseling from a professional can make a world of difference. Trained professionals can use their expertise to help your child process and cope with a devastating loss in ways you may not be able to. Consider family therapy or support groups, too! (Click here to find local resources.)
When You’re Both Grieving
When both you and your child are navigating through a loss, it can add a layer of complexity to the grieving process. You want to be there and support your child through their grief, but how do you do that when you’re grieving yourself?
Acknowledge Your Own Feelings
If you’re sad, allow yourself to feel that way. If you’re angry about what happened, be angry. If you want to cry, then let the tears fall.
Grief often feels like a combination of complex emotions. It can be overwhelming to feel so much all at once. Remember that and allow yourself to embrace the emotions you experience—and be kind to yourself every step of the way.
Express Your Emotions
Sometimes, we mistakenly believe we must “stay strong” for the sake of our kids. We hold back our tears in front of our children, we avoid talking about our feelings with our children, and we try to maintain routine to make our family life return to normal.
We may think we’re “staying strong,” but what we’re really doing is demonstrating unhealthy coping habits to our children. If kids see their parents hiding away their feelings, they might think they need to do the same.
Instead, model a healthy expression of your emotions. Opt for saying things like, “I’m really sad today” or “I’ve been missing our loved one a lot lately.” Choosing phrases like, “I will never move on from this” or “I can’t handle this pain” could scare and stress your children.
Openly Discuss Your Grief
This is something that many parents understandably try to shy away from. You don’t want to make your child more upset, and it can be intimidating to have such a vulnerable conversation with anyone—even your family!
When feelings of grief arise, talk about them together. If you’re sad, share why you’re sad with your child. Invite them to share how they feel in return. Cry together, then build each other back up. Take turns recalling your favorite memories about your loved one.
Holding the space for a safe and open discussion about your shared grief will aid you both throughout the grieving process. These conversations with your children will be therapeutic and healing. They’ll also show your child that hiding or avoiding their feelings is not helpful.
There is strength in feeling and expressing your emotions—and grief is no exception.
Children are especially vulnerable while grieving. With a safe phone in hand, they can turn to a support system they can trust—instead of dark websites, social media, or strangers. To find out how Troomi can keep your child protected, click here.