Helping your Child Deal with Grief

While it is common for children to grieve the death of a loved one, children might also grieve following a divorce or separation, a loved one moving away or moving out of the home or decreased visitations with a loved one. All of these experiences can be considered a “loss.” Even if the child is still able to talk to her loved one on the phone or visit from time to time, any of these changes can be a big adjustment for a child.

Following a loss, tell your child what has happened as soon as you can so she does not accidently hear it from someone else or become confused when she notices things have changed but does not know why. Use language that your child can understand while being honest. Tell your child what will happen in the following days, weeks, or months after the loss and let her know it is okay to be sad or angry.

There are a variety of ways children might respond to a loss. It is important to understand that children will react differently from one another and from adults. Some children might become very upset immediately, while others might get upset a few days after, or not appear to be affected at all. This is especially common for children under five who often are too developmentally immature to understand the loss. Children will often adjust more slowly to a loss than adults.

To help your child adjust you can do the following things:

  • Keep your child’s regular routine. In the event of a big change or loss, consistency can be comforting to a child, and make her feel safe.
  • Answer any questions she might have honestly, using age-appropriate language.
  • Help her express how she feels by drawing pictures, labeling her feelings, and playing with her each day, as play is one of the main ways children express themselves.
  • Help her to remember her loved one through pictures and stories of good times you had together. You can even help her make a “memory box” that she can keep pictures of her loved one in to look at whenever she likes.

Occasionally your child might show a change in behavior following a loss. While a temporary change is a normal part of the adjustment from loss, if a change in behavior becomes unsafe, prolonged, or unmanageable, consult a professional. Some examples of these behaviors include:

  • Increased withdrawal or isolation
  • Self-injurious behaviors (hair-pulling, skin-picking, head-hitting)
  • Frequent crying
  • Aggressive behaviors
  • A change in school performance
  • Sleeping problems
  • Loss of interest in play
  • Increased toileting accidents or bedwetting
  • Sexual behavior
  • Increased worrying, fear, or anxiety
  • Loss of developmental skills she once had or failing to develop new skills

Do you have an experience helping your child deal with grief? If so, share it here.

Amy Beschta is a Family Counselor who works with children with and without a mental health diagnosis, and their families.

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