Grief is a complex emotion that children can encounter through various experiences, from the loss of a loved one to the departure of a dear friend. Helping children navigate grief means helping them understand and cope with big emotions. And it is crucial for their emotional development. Here we explore children’s grief, including common signs and essential strategies for providing support during these challenging times.

Children Experiencing Grief

Children can encounter various situations that bring them face to face with loss, such as the passing of a cherished family member or a beloved pet. It can also manifest as the departure of a dear friend to a distant state. Helping children navigate grief, which can take on various forms, plays a crucial role in helping them comprehend both the world they inhabit and their own emotions. Frequently, a child’s initial encounter with loss and grief can be a bewildering period for both children and their parents.

Delayed Grieving Periods

There are also delayed periods of grief, especially when children may have been too young to understand their loss. Once they get older and begin to understand the depth of that loss- it can bring on a period of grieving without an obvious trigger. Consider this example. A young girl’s father passed away when she was 3 years old. She doesn’t completely understand the depth of this loss until her school puts on a daddy-daughter dance 4 years later. Now at 7 years old, this young girl is faced with a new understanding that there are experiences she will not get to share with her father. It’s this new understanding of loss that brings on a period of grieving, delayed from the initial time of her father’s passing. 

Common Signs

Regardless of what brings on these deep feelings, providing support and guidance in these challenging times is crucial for parents. Helping children navigate grief can pave the way for them to develop resilience and a deeper understanding of life’s complexities. The first step to helping is understanding that children experience grief in a variety of ways. Here are some common signs that your child is coping with grief. 

  • Sleep problems
  • Lower academic performance
  • Clinginess
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of abandonment
  • Acting out
  • Guilt
  • Including topics of death in play
  • Behavior regressions like thumb sucking, and wetting the bed

A Parent’s Guide to Helping Children Navigate Grief

Discuss Death Honestly

Using phrases like “they went to sleep” or “they’re gone” when speaking about death can be very confusing for children. Avoid confusion by being honest that a person or pet’s body stopped working and that they will not be coming back. Make a point to be honest in a way that’s gentle but clear.

Details are not necessary unless your child asks and you feel they are old enough to handle hearing certain things. Explaining diseases or other causes for loss can bring understanding as long as they’re old enough. Even older kids may not be able to handle the full story of certain topics however. Topics like addiction and depression can be phrased as a disease or a mental health concern that was left untreated without going into full detail of a tragic situation.

Listen and Provide Comfort

Be available and make sure your child knows you are available to talk. Listen to them and reassure them that their big feelings are normal and okay. Be there to answer questions, provide a hug or just to sit in silence with them. Whatever comfort your child needs, be there to give it to them. And it’s okay if they see that you are sad too. 

Inform Other Caregivers

If your child is currently enrolled in school, a summer camp, or other after-school activity- be sure to inform their caregivers of the situation. Teachers, counselors, and other adults they interact with should be informed of a loss especially if your child is actively coping with grief. It’s good that they are aware in case your child experiences an emotional moment while in their care. This avoids confusion and allows the present caregiver to act effectively.

Demonstrate Putting Feelings into Words

When dealing with big emotions like grief, it can be difficult for children to express what they are going through and what they need. To help them through this time, it’s important they learn how to communicate their big feelings. Lead by example by sharing your feelings in words they understand like “Auntie loved us very much, I really miss her.” 

Incorporate Positive Activities

It’s important for parents to acknowledge their children’s feelings of grief and sadness. However, it’s also important to make an effort to cheer them up. Cook their favorite meal, recommend doing an activity they enjoy, make art, or play. It’s best to not let them dwell on sad feelings after talking and comforting them. 

Be Patient

As children navigate this challenging time, remember to be patient with them. Their process for grieving may cycle in and out of these feelings. Even if you feel as though they have already moved on and they become grief-stricken again- be sure to provide the same compassion and understanding like before. 

Seek Additional Help if Needed

There are signs that a child is not doing well processing grief and that additional assistance should be brought in. 

  • If a loved one’s death was sudden and/or violent
  • Their symptoms get worse over time
  • Excessively imitating the deceased 
  • Ongoing behavior problems
  • Suicidal thoughts / suicidal ideation
  • Excessive anxiety

Supporting children through grief is a vital journey that fosters resilience and emotional growth. By acknowledging their feelings and providing a safe space for expression, we can help them navigate the complexities of loss, ensuring they emerge stronger and more understanding of life’s challenges.

Sources: Nemours, Very Well Family, Child Mind Institute