Whether they are dealing with the death of a family member or of a beloved pet, kids can and do feel the loss as deeply as adults. Parents, though, often do not know how to help their children grieve.
In fact, by pushing to make it better or by urging their kids to just smile, moms, dads, and relatives can actually do harm.
If the grief process is stifled, it may eventually result in depression or unhealthy behaviors.
Although grief is an individual journey, adults can help children through the process.
Let Kids Grieve Like Kids
Kids and adults grieve differently. Children can only tolerate the intensity of their feelings for a short period of time, so they grieve in spurts. As a result, kids may swing from playfulness to despair in a matter of minutes. Give them room for their full range of feelings.
Be Supportive, Yet Non-intrusive
While it is important to let children know you are available, do it in a way that lets them be in control of when and how they share their feelings. Follow their lead.
Help Kids Identify Their Emotions
Because of their limited experience with grief, children may not even have the vocabulary to convey their many emotions, including sadness,
anger, fear, and helplessness. One of the most helpful things an adult can do is to give names to what the child is feeling.
Give Age-Appropriate Information
What you tell a preschooler about her grandmother's death is likely to be different from what you share with a teenager. But whatever you do, tell the truth at all times.
Look for External Support Systems
Contact your child's school, a local
hospice, religious institution, or university for referrals to children's programs. Your pediatrician can also advise you on how to share appropriate information with your child.
Expect Your Child to Regress
Kids, especially younger ones, can experience developmental setbacks, so do not be surprised if your child goes back to thumb sucking or bedwetting. Extra attention can help your child feel more secure.
Be Aware of Danger Signs
anxiety, sadness, and lack of interest in friends and activities are common symptoms of grief, they may indicate a more severe problem if it is extreme. Seek professional assistance if these symptoms continue to worsen or do not improve after a month or two.
Avoid Common Clichés Related to Death
Though you may be tempted to sugarcoat your explanations of what happened to your child's hamster, be careful of the phrases you use.
Saying Fluffy "went to sleep" may make your child afraid to close their eyes at night, for fear that they will not wake up. Also avoid poetic, hard to grasp, concepts like "going to be with God" and "the angels took her away" until you are sure your child understands them.
Do Not Be Afraid to Show Your Own Feelings of Grief
A loss for your child likely means a loss for you, too. Do not hesitate to show your own grief. In fact, a family cry can be a great way to bond with your children and share feelings and memories. Sometimes just knowing that it is okay to feel sad is enough to help a child feel better.
Do Not Expect Kids to "Get Over It"
Grief is a process that is different for every person. Some children may take longer to heal than others, or experience more ups and downs, and that is okay.
Children and grief. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology website. Available at: http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/Facts_for_Families_Pages/Children_And_Grief_08.aspx. Updated July 2013. Accessed September 18, 2017.
Death and grief. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/en/teens/someone-died.html. Updated November 2013. Accessed September 18, 2017.
Grief. Sesame Street website. Available at: http://www.sesamestreet.org/toolkits/grief. Accessed September 18, 2017.
Helping children cope with grief. AMCH website. Available at: http://www.amhc.org/58-grief-bereavement-issues/article/8451-helping-children-cope-with-grief. Accessed September 18, 2017.
What to tell children about grief depends on their age. AMCH website. Available at: http://www.amhc.org/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=8452&cn=58. Accessed September 18, 2017.
Last reviewed September 2017 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 11/12/2013
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