[Reviewed and updatedJune 6, 2022]
Children and adolescents grieve just as deeply as adults, but depending on their cognitive and emotional development, they will experience and express their grief differently from the grown-ups around them. Moving in and out of grief is natural for youngsters, and the symptoms of grief may come and go, varying in intensity. Their response will depend on the knowledge and skills available to them at the time of the loss. Having had less prior experience with crisis and its consequences, their repertoire of coping skills is simpler, their capacity to confront the reality of loss more limited and their ability to find meaning in life’s crises less mature. If surprised or embarrassed by the intensity of their grief, they may try to hide it or disguise it. Parents, relatives, teachers and friends are wise to watch and to tune in to their children and adolescents, to listen to them, be there for them and if unsure of what’s going on, to ask! More than anything else, children need their parents and the other adults in their world to be honest with them. They need accurate, factual information, freedom to ask questions and express their feelings, inclusion in decisions, discussions and family commemorative rituals, stable, consistent attention from their caretakers, and time to explore and come to terms with the meaning of their loss.
- Recognize that death and loss are natural parts of living. Shielding children from grief is futile and gives them no role models to learn healthy, normal coping behaviors.
- Be open and meticulously honest. Children know when adults are shading the truth. If children discover that you’ve distorted the truth or lied to them, they’ll have a great deal of trouble trusting you again.
- First find out what the children already know or think they know about dying and death.
- Validate feelings and encourage children to share their thoughts, fears and observations about what has happened.
- Offer explanations that are age appropriate and at the child’s level of understanding. A child under age five needs comfort and support rather than detailed explanations, whereas a child over age five needs information that is simple, accurate, plain and direct.
- Explain that in the circle of life, all living things will die someday and that death causes changes in a living thing.
- Help children understand what “dead” means (that the body stops working and won’t work anymore) and that death is not the same as sleeping (that the sleeping body is still working, but just resting).
- Don’t use confusing or misleading euphemisms such as “passed away,” “lost” or “gone on.” Such phrases imply the one who died is on a trip and will return, leave children feeling rejected or abandoned, or encourage them to go searching for the individual or hold out hope for his or her return.
- Explain how we might feel when someone dies: sad, mad, or confused, and we may cry sometimes. Let your children know that laughing and playing are still okay, too, and that you respect their need to be children at this sad and difficult time.
- Relieve the child of any feelings of responsibility for the death; magical thinking may lead a child to conclude that something she or he did, wished or imagined somehow caused the death.
- Avoid telling children that the dead person was so good or so special that God wanted him or her to be with Him in heaven. Children may become angry with God or fear that they (or you) will be chosen next.
- Respect and encourage your children’s needs to express and share feelings of sadness. When you bring up the subject, you’re showing your own willingness to talk about it. When in doubt about your children’s thoughts and feelings, ask.
- Don’t feel as if you must have all the answers; sometimes just listening is enough. Expect that young children will ask and need answers to the same questions over and over again.
- Find and read some of the many wonderful stories and books written especially for children to help them better understand death and grief. (See, for example, Using Children's Books to Help with Grief.)
- Don’t cut off their feelings by noting how well your children are handling their grief or how brave or strong they are. Let them see you upset and crying, which implies that it’s all right to cry for those we love and lose.
- Children and adolescents may be reluctant to express their thoughts and feelings verbally. Encourage them to express their grief and preserve their memories in a variety of ways, including art, music, journal writing, story-telling and picture collecting.
- Let children and adolescents plan and participate in commemorative family rituals.
- Recognize that teens are already struggling with the enormous physical and psychological changes and pressures of adolescence. No longer children, but not yet mature adults, they still need adult supervision, guidance, and consistent, compassionate support.
- Don’t deprive teens of their own need to mourn by pressuring them to “be strong” for a surviving parent, younger siblings or other family members.
- Understand that teens don’t like to stand out and feel different from their friends; they want to belong, and normally turn to one another for support. But if a teen’s friends have never experienced the death of a loved one, it’s unlikely that they can fully understand what the bereaved adolescent is feeling or experiencing. Grieving teens do best when they’re helped to connect with other teens who’ve also experienced a death. (The Compassionate Friendsnow offers an online support groupon Facebookaimed at teens who've lost a sibling:Sounds of the Siblings.)
- Assure adolescents that conflict in relationships between teens and adults is a normal part of growing up, and offer them every opportunity to vent their feelings about their relationship with the person who died. Teens striving to separate from authority figures and find their own identity normally feel somewhat alienated from parents, siblings, and other family members, and if a loved one dies during this turbulent time, they can be left with feelings of guilt and unfinished business.
- Give teenagers permission not to be grieving all the time. If they’ve expressed their feelings and talked about the loss with others (family, friends, teachers and other helpers) it may not be useful for them to focus further on their loss. It’s not disloyal of them to want to put their grief aside and enjoy life again.
- Be on the alert for signs that a teen may need extra help (depression; drastic changes in sleeping or eating habits; falling grades; substance abuse; sexual acting out; deteriorating relationships with family and friends).
- Children and adolescents will cope only as well as the adults around them; helping yourself will help your children.
- Alert significant adults in your child or adolescent’s life (family doctor, teachers, school counselor, caregivers, neighbors, relatives, friends) about the death in your family. Ask their help in keeping a watchful eye on your youngster, and ask for their additional support and understanding during this difficult time.
- Consider enrolling your child or adolescent in a support program or summer camp for children and their families. Such groups are offered periodically throughout the year by hospices and other community agencies. (See, for example, Camp Erin: Grieving Camps for Children.)
- Explore additional resources, such as those listed on the Child, Adolescent Grief page of my Grief Healing website.
Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below. If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weeklyGrief Healing Newsletter.Sign up here.
Related Articles and Resources:
- 6 Ways That Adolescent Grief Is Different
- 6 Ways to Support A Grieving Teen
- Boys and Grief
- Children & Divorce
- Children Grieve Too, But Not The Same As Adults
- College Grief and Actively Moving Forward (AMF)
- Colleges Turn to Science to Help 'Suicide Contagion' on Campus
- Explaining Death to Children
- Family Changes: Explaining Divorce to Children
- Going Back to School After a Death: 9 Tips
- Grief At School: A Guide for School Personnel
- Grief During COVID-19: Supporting Children
- Grief Is Good
- Grieving A Parent's Death: A Different Goodbye for Millenials
- Helping a Teenager Deal with Grief
- Helping Children Cope with a Pet's Euthanasia
- Helping Grieving Teens
- Helping Teens with Grief and Anger
- How Do I Help A Grieving Child In My Classroom?
- How Stories Help Sick Kids Get Better
- How to celebrate with the graduate in your life who is grieving the loss of a loved one
- How to Help Grieving Teens
- How to Support Grieving College Students
- How to Talk to Your Grieving Teen
- Including Children in Rituals of Grief and Mourning
- KidsGrief.ca: Talking with Kids and Teens about Dying and Death
- Providing Remote Grief Support to Students and School Communities
- PTSD in Children -- Does Your Child Have Symptoms?
- Six Reasons Why You Should Focus On A Grieving Child
- SLAP'D: Surviving Life After A Parent Dies
- Talk When You're Ready: SLAP'D's Advice for Teens Grieving the Loss of a Parent
- Teen Grief Relief
- Teens Talk About Grief
- The Dinner Party
- Tips for Talking with Children about Addiction and Overdose Loss
- Too Damn Young
- Using Children's Books to Help with Grief
- We Didn't Win
- Where Did My Friend Go? Helping Children Cope with A Traumatic Death
© byMarty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH
Tips for Helping Children and Adolescents in Grief? ›
Encourage your child to talk about his or her emotions. Suggest other ways to express feelings, such as writing in a journal or drawing a picture. Without overwhelming your child, share your grief with him or her. Expressing your emotions can encourage your son or daughter to share his or her own emotions.How do you help kids who are grieving? ›
- Use simple words to talk about death. ...
- Listen and comfort. ...
- Put feelings into words. ...
- Tell your child what to expect. ...
- Explain events that will happen. ...
- Give your child a role. ...
- Help your child remember the person.
Tip: Try to put their emotional expression into context. Understand the wide range of emotions associated with grief and anticipate teens may be more likely to express emotions like anger than sadness. Try to be open, accepting, and validating of their emotions and make sure they know you're available to talk.What are 3 strategies for coping with grief? ›
- Acknowledge your pain.
- Accept that grief can trigger many different and unexpected emotions.
- Understand that your grieving process will be unique to you.
- Seek out face-to-face support from people who care about you.
- Support yourself emotionally by taking care of yourself physically.
- Reassure them that it's not their fault. ...
- Understand that they haven't forgotten about it. ...
- Show them it's ok to be upset. ...
- Let them know that it's ok to have fun. ...
- Create stability.
“I'm so sorry to hear that your father has died” may be all you need to start your message. “You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers” will work if it's true. “I will miss your mother; she touched my life in so many ways” is a good opening for writing about ways that she touched your life.Why is grieving difficult for teens? ›
Grieving is the teen's natural reaction to a death.
However, grieving does not feel natural because it may be difficult to control the emotions, thoughts, or physical feelings associated with a death. The sense of being out of control that is often a part of grief may overwhelm or frighten some teens.
Bereaved teenagers experience worsened mental health, in- creased aggression, and an increased risk for self-harm. The research in this literature reviews, supports this, and further emphasizes the negative impact of losing a parent on teenagers mental health.How do teenagers react to the death of a parent? ›
Common Reactions of Grieving Teens
Heaviness in the chest or tightness in the throat. An empty feeling in the stomach and a loss of appetite. Guilt over something said or done, or something left unsaid or undone. Anger and lashing out at others, sometimes at any time for no reason.
Any death can be difficult for a child, and a wide range of emotional and behavioral responses are common including changes in sleeping pattern or appetite; sad, angry, or anxious feelings; social isolation; persistent thoughts about the death; or feeling the person's presence nearby.
What are some of the stages of loss and grief for children? ›
- Denial. Denial is often characterized by such variant reactions such as avoidance, confusion, shock, and fear. ...
- Anger. Once the denial and shock start to fade, the healing process begins. ...
- Bargaining. ...
- Depression. ...
Children who experience parental loss are at a higher risk for many negative outcomes, including mental issues (e.g., depression, anxiety, somatic complaints, post-traumatic stress symptoms), shorter schooling, less academic success, lower self-esteem5, and more sexual risk behaviors6.How do you prepare a child for the death of a grandparent? ›
- Prepare yourself. ...
- Be honest, and don't wait. ...
- Be thoughtful about who informs the child. ...
- Let the child's questions guide the conversation. ...
- Keep the age of the child in mind. ...
- Keep the lines of communication open. ...
- Seek support. ...
- Let your children be children.
People who have experienced loss may have a range of feelings. This could include shock, numbness, sadness, denial, despair, anxiety, anger, guilt, loneliness, depression, helplessness, relief, and yearning. A grieving person may start crying after hearing a song or comment that makes them think of the person who died.How Losing a parent affects a teenager? ›
Bereaved teenagers experience worsened mental health, in- creased aggression, and an increased risk for self-harm. The research in this literature reviews, supports this, and further emphasizes the negative impact of losing a parent on teenagers mental health.What is child traumatic grief? ›
Childhood Traumatic Grief is a condition in which children develop significant trauma symptoms related to the death of an attachment figure (e.g., parent or sibling) or another important person (e.