How to Help Children Cope with Grief

Helping children cope with grief can be one of the hardest challenges we face as adults. Here is a breakdown by age that can help you connect at an appropriate level.

By Matt Leahy, Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist | Mar 07, 2016
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This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

Helping children cope with grief can be one of the hardest challenges we face as adults. We all know that awful feeling that accompanies loss, and imagining our children trying to make sense of those same feelings is difficult. Of course, there’s no magic intervention, no magic words that make the whole thing better. But there are ways that we can approach and talk with children that can help them make sense of the experience.

First, let’s talk about what constitutes grief. Of course there’s loss of life – a friend, teacher, parent, or grandparent who passes away. But grief can be a much broader topic than that. It doesn’t even necessarily have to involve loss of another person. It can mean the death of a pet, a diagnosis of terminal illness, unavailability of a parent due to imprisonment, divorce or alcoholism, or the extended absence of a teacher or familiar adult. It can be the loss of experiences, such as not being picked for a team sport, an injury or illness. It can be major changes in the child’s environment, such as moving to a new school or new home, a natural disaster or major news story such as 9/11. Grief really can encompass such a wide variety of subjects that I encourage you to notice when a child is having a reaction that you wouldn’t have expected. For example, you may think that the process of breaking your child’s pacifier habit is no big deal, but your child may actually be going through a grief and loss process over this routine and comfort item that he is accustomed to.

Just as there’s no one type of loss, there’s no one way that kids process grief. Responses can be all over the board. A child might say that he’s fine and throw himself into activities that take his mind off the loss. Or a child might become depressed and withdraw from his regular activities and friends. Everyone handles grief differently.

You’re probably familiar with the five stages of grief, a concept coined by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. They are:

Denial (“This did not happen. She is not dead. She just went away.”)

Bargaining (“I promise I will be good if she will just come back.”)

Depression (“I really miss her. I feel alone.”)

Anger (“Why did this happen? I hate her! She left me!”)

Acceptance (“She is gone. But it is okay.”)

These five stages of grief are certainly a handy guide for gauging how a child is reacting to an experience. But of course, children don’t just jump through these in order and land at acceptance. Kids might bounce around from one to another, they may move past one and then circle back to it, or they may get stuck on one.

Grief looks very different for kids depending on their age. It makes sense – a three-year-old is going to process the loss of her grandmother differently from a 16-year-old. There is some fluidity to these categories depending on the maturity and previous experiences of the child, but for the sake of simplicity, I will break it down by age range. I hope this can help parents connect with their children at an appropriate level for their age as well as identify how their child might be processing the experience. For the purposes of this post, I will assume the loss involves the death of a loved one, but of course we know that grief can come from a variety of sources, and these same general rules apply.

Children Ages 0-2

Babies and very young toddlers have no real concept of death. They might react to a change in their sense of security, if the loss was a primary caregiver or a significant person in their life. Very young children might react to changes in their environment through biting, crying or rocking. Very young children need to be comforted and cared for during this time, even though it might be difficult for an adult who is going through his/her own grief process. Parents may want to bring in additional support to help care for a baby or very young child if needed.

Children Ages 2-4

Toddlers and young children often see death as reversible. They don’t quite have the context to understand the permanence of death. They may have an intense immediate response, but it may be brief as they lack the understanding of the magnitude of the loss. Children in this age range are very present-oriented, and may ask questions repeatedly. Parents should attempt to comfort these young children by using a kind and understanding tone of voice and encouraging the child to talk in whatever way he can express it. Parents should give children permission to “play” about the death experience using toys or dolls. Play is often the easiest way to access a child’s thoughts and understanding of a complex experience. You can connect with a child by sharing your own experience of how you feel, or how you felt during a similar experience. Very young children will need reassurance that their family members will continue to take care of their safety and well-being.

Children Ages 4-6

Young children in this age range often still see death as reversible. They may also have an added level of perceived responsibility for death. Depending on circumstances, a child may feel responsible for the death if he had negative thoughts or wishes toward the person who passed. A child’s response to grief might include more verbalization than younger children. Often children in this age range will ask questions about the process, such as “What happened?” “How did she die?” “Why did she die?” This can be generally confusing and distressing for a child who is trying to make sense of the experience. Parents should try to be attuned to their child’s questions and concerns and try to see if there are any underlying concerns. For example, a child might not come right out and tell you that he had bad thoughts about the person who died and therefore feels responsible, but you may be able to pick up on this feeling based on the questions he asks and the concerns he verbalizes. Parents should provide children with clear answers in simple terms to the child’s questions, no matter how improbable the child’s fears or concerns seem. Parents should be prepared to refute any magical or irrational beliefs the child may hold about fear or death, and should accept and allow the child to express his understanding of the events surrounding death through play, artwork, music, or whatever method the child chooses.

Children Ages 7-11

Children in this age range are typically starting to see death as final, though they may still wish for it to be reversible. While this age group may understand death intellectually, they may have great difficulty understanding it emotionally. Consequently, children in this age range might ask very specific questions in an attempt to get complete detail about the experience. Parents can help children by taking them seriously, no matter how shallow their concerns seem. This will help the child feel that their own method of grieving is accepted, even if it’s not the same as everyone else’s method. Parents can include children of this age in family discussions about changes brought about by the loss.

Children Ages 11-18

Older children often have a greater understanding of death and are able to abstract and conceptualize death. Children in this age range might have more extreme sadness, denial or regression because of their understanding of the permanence of loss. They are often more willing to talk to peers and people outside of their family for support. Teenagers should be included in family discussions about grief, including the planning and decision making around services. They should be informed of what to expect for events, ceremonies and rituals that will follow, and what to expect from relatives. It is important that teenagers see how adults are grieving. This will model for them adult ways to grieve. Teenagers will have a lot of thoughts and feelings about the grief experience, and parents should encourage them to talk about what they think and feel. If a child’s feelings are different from your own, accept and respect their grief process rather than try to change their feelings. Remember that each child experiences grief differently.

As each child grieves differently, there’s no easy way to share what works with a toddler and a teenager at the same time. That said, there are a few guidelines that work across all ages.

Show genuine care and concern for your child. Assure him that you are present and there to listen. Talk openly about the person who died (or the loss, whatever it is). Remember special anniversaries or special times that will be harder than others. Did your child always celebrate his birthday with a special ice-cream outing with his grandma? Or were there special holiday traditions that will be different this year? Try to remember to honor his feelings during those times. Most importantly, be patient. Remember that not all children process things the same way, and that what might seem like a small loss to you may take your child a long time to recover from. Giving your child the flexibility to grieve in his own way will alleviate pressure that he’s not grieving “correctly”.

It is better for children to understand the reality of death rather than being shielded from it. This means not sending confusing messages like, “Grandma is sleeping now.” Children should be allowed to grieve in the way that is best for them, so try to avoid encouraging a child to stop crying or to “be strong”. Similarly, trying to cheer a child up or using comfort phrases like, “She’s in a better place now” often don’t help a child and can minimize his feelings.

A child should seek additional help from a counselor or a grief group if he appears to be in denial that anything has happened, if school work takes a rapid decline, you see social changes, i.e. he begins to withdraw socially, or the opposite, he acts out in new ways, if he threatens suicide, has frequent panic attacks, becomes involved in drugs or alcohol or begins committing serious socially delinquent attacks. If the relationship between the child and the deceased is particularly complicated, it might be a good idea to bring in additional grief support as well.

Lastly, I encourage you to keep the line of communication open with your children. Don’t worry about bringing up the deceased and reminding them of the person they lost. Most likely, that loss is already on their mind, and talking about it is actually helping validate their thoughts and feelings. Feel free to talk openly about happy memories of the person who is gone. You can work on a memory book, a poem, or a collage together. You can write messages to the person who died and stick them inside a balloon and release it. Children of all ages will navigate grief best with attuned adults who genuinely care about helping them through the experience and will listen to them with open hearts.