When Children Grieve: 7 Strategies to Help Them Cope

Girl and man putting flowers on a grave in the rain From the moment we first hear their cries, we want to shield our children from life’s sorrows. We know we can’t do this entirely, but we do what we can. We make sure they have fun, we keep them from getting hurt, and we tell them not to worry–“everything will be okay.” Even so, tragedy, loss, and suffering inevitably hit home.  It could be the death of a close relative or friend. Maybe there was a fire and you lost your home. It could even be your ten-year-old golden retriever that just lost a battle with cancer.  The amount of pain, heartbreak, angst, and uncertainty we feel in the wake of a loss–or the anxiety we experience as we prepare to say our final good-byes to a loved one–is too much for any heart to handle. Then, as we’re managing our own grief, we need to help an innocent child process his or her grief, too. We know we can’t control everything in life–especially loss and death. But here are 7 things we can control to help grieving children.

1. Offering Safety Through Normal Boundaries & Routines

When a child’s world is turned upside down through loss, we can provide consistency wherever possible. By maintaining a normal schedule with familiar structure, we give our kids a sense of security and let them know, “You can count on me.” Unless they request otherwise, keep taking your son to soccer practice and attending your daughter’s pottery class. While your gut instinct may say “he’s going through a hard time, I’m going to let him off the hook,” fight against this urge. It’s actually more helpful to retain a family’s normal rules and consequences than to let your child call the shots. Clear expectations provide kids a great deal of comfort. They love knowing that someone is looking out for their progress and protection–even if they protest it.   If there is an abnormal amount of pushback, consider that your child might need a little more flexibility based on the circumstances. But in general, maintain as much consistency as you can manage.

2.  Love & Attention

Here at Positive Parenting Solutions, our core belief–based on Adlerian Psychology–is that all children need to feel a sense of belonging within the family unit and need to feel significant. As you can imagine, grief may take this need for belonging and significance and turn it up a few notches. If your son just lost a parent or a relative he heavily relied on, loved, and looked up to, imagine how he might question the new family dynamic or his new place in the world. We need to focus on daily one-on-one time with grieving children, doing something they care about and want to do. It could be going to a trampoline park and briefly distracting your daughter from her grief, or answering all her questions about death. We recommend this one-on-one time for all parents and children–but for a grieving child, it is especially crucial. Intellectually, we understand that our child’s sadness should be combated with extra doses of love, affection, and attention. But if we ourselves are buried in grief, these needs can be easily overlooked or unintentionally pushed aside.  Please Note: We should follow a child’s lead during the grieving process. If he wants to be left alone more than usual, allow this too. Just make sure your child knows that when he’s ready, you are available to shower as much love and attention as he’d like.

3.  Letting Go of Certain Expectations

Grief is as varied as the children it affects. While one child may relish getting lost in algebra equations, another may start failing in geometry class.  Your son may want to talk incessantly about his deceased cousin, while your daughter yells at you any time you mention it.  Although we want to be consistent with rules and routines, we also need to be flexible in our expectations. Changes in a child’s progress at school, sleep and appetite disturbances, dramatic fluctuations in mood, and even apathy are all common reactions to grief. It’s also normal to see behavioral regression. A 4-year-old that’s been potty trained for two years might start having accidents. A 7-year-old might start throwing toddler-like tantrums It’s hard not knowing what response to expect from a grieving child at any given moment, or what seemingly harmless activity could trigger an emotional reaction. Just try to remember that your child’s out-of-character behavior doesn’t mean you’re in for a future of defiance and power struggles–it’s probably just the grief that’s talking.  Please Note: Although we should let compassion and patience be our guides during this process, if we do see signs of violence or other extreme types of behavior from a grieving child, we should seek professional help immediately. Grief is as varied as the child it affects

4.  Modeling–but Managing–Your Emotions

If we fail to express our grief, our children may not feel inclined to express their grief, either.  Modeling emotions teaches our kids that they aren’t alone in their feelings. It does help though, to limit catastrophic speech like “oh, how will we ever feel better,” or, “I just can’t handle this pain.” This can justifiably scare children and cause them additional stress. Instead of saying, “I’m really sad today,” we can try saying “I’m having a sad moment.” Or, instead of, “I feel really lonely without our (loved one),” we can say, “I’m thinking about and remembering our (loved one) a lot today.”   We should feel free to acknowledge pain, but we also want to show grieving children that it’s possible to manage pain, too–no matter how unbelievable that may seem at times.  We also need to help them find healthy ways to express their grief. 

5.  Finding Grief Outlets

Anger-Relief

Sometimes in life, we need to scream into a pillow or pummel a punching bag. In particular, (just like adults) kids can experience anger and other big emotions during the grieving process.  When grief, anxiety, and anger become unbearable, it’s helpful to suggest safe and effective ways for children to vent.  We can take a ten-year-old to a karate class or give a toddler some old newspapers and boxes to stomp on, tear up, and destroy. We can put in earplugs while our teenager listens to Metallica on full blast. In essence, we shouldn’t be afraid to let our kids scream and steam like an old metal teapot (even if that means driving them somewhere isolated and quite literally letting them scream.)

Play

Young children often make sense of their grief through play. This means you may find your daughter in the middle of a nurse Barbie reenactment after her time in hospice with grandma, or encounter your son making a funeral procession with his toy cars.  Embrace this sweet manner of processing loss, and play along if they invite you to–even if the tears roll down your face (after all, it could be therapeutic for you, too).

Communication

A child may want to talk at length about grief, or she may not want to discuss it at all. However, communication is always a healthy outlet.   If talking about death or loss is important to your child but is too hard for you to talk about just yet, encourage her to talk to a counselor or someone that’s willing to discuss it more openly (see Seeking Outside Resources below). 

Creativity   

Whether it’s writing daily in a journal, finger painting, or marching and playing in the high school band, creative expression is an excellent outlet for grief. You can argue that many of the most brilliant, creative minds in history have worked through tragedy. Frida Kahlo, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eminem…they all had to wrestle with some form of grief. Creativity arguably gave them that outlet.   Creative flow can be an almost out-of-body, meditative experience. We can even forget about ourselves and our pain for a brief moment. We can also help make peace with something tragic. Encourage kids to turn their sorrow into something meaningful and beautiful. If they have pursuits they’re passionate about, like basketball, dance, or even LEGO robotics club, we can suggest they focus on these activities and pour their emotions into their practice.  If your child seems interested, she can even create something out of an article of clothing or special item that belonged to a deceased loved one. If your teenage daughter wants to take Grandma’s favorite dress and sew it into a blanket, you can assist her in the process. Even if your son wants to keep his cat’s ashes and paint them into a meaningful picture, that’s okay.  The bottom line is, no creativity is too bizarre–especially if it gives grief some meaning.

Funerals & Rituals

People debate whether or not it’s appropriate to bring children to funerals. Again, we want to protect our children from pain. Depending on their age, we may also question whether or not they can fully handle and/or understand death and grief.  If so, we are underestimating a child’s strength and emotional intelligence.  Children may be innocent, but they are also fairly resilient. Even though funerals and other after-death rituals can be painful to attend, they are an important way to celebrate the lives of those that have passed. They also offer a chance for family members to express their grief together and to say goodbye to the deceased. Children deserve this chance as much as everyone else. They also learn about humanity from these rituals and processes.
“In respectful loss, we pass to children a reverence for the irreplaceable gift of each human life.”
– Sharon Holbrook, The Washington Post
Please Note: Don’t force your child to attend a funeral if they’d rather not, but don’t keep them from one, either. Your child can decide how involved she’d like to be.

6.  Relieving Kids of Guilt

Whether it’s a divorce or a parent’s or friend’s untimely death, many children feel responsible for loss.  Misplaced guilt is common for anyone dealing with grief. We blame ourselves and may spend years trying to understand that it wasn’t actually our fault. Children are no different. They need to be informed, perhaps repeatedly, that there is no way that they could have caused the loss. Even if your teenager’s friend died in a car crash on her way to your house–after your daughter invited her over–she needs to understand that she didn’t make that car crash. It’s not her fault. 

7.  Seeking Outside Resources

No matter what grief your child is facing, I highly encourage you to find outside resources for help. It could be a counselor, psychologist, support group, or spiritual leader. The National Alliance for Grieving Children is a great place to find a grief support program or counselor near you.  While I hope I’ve given you helpful and tangible advice in this little article, I also know it is incredibly important to seek out people in your own circle who can be your hands and feet during this time. Relatives and friends can provide extra nurturing and support–especially adults and friends your child is close to and trusts. Anyone that might make your child feel less alone in the grieving process is a helping hand for you both. 

Final Thoughts

Sorrow has at least one positive side effect, besides making us stronger and inspiring creative masterpieces; it reminds us what really matters in this life. With these coping strategies, we can focus on the grieving children that matter more than anything and that need us so desperately right now. It’s not going to be pretty, or easy, no matter what we do. It will also take time–who knows how long–and a small part of the grief may never go away. But it’s important to remind yourself that your child will smile again, laugh again, and flourish again.  And so will you. Title Image: Twin Design / Shutterstock www.shutterstock.com/photos

About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the best selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.