Handling a Child’s Grief

Everyone experiences a sense of shock when death occurs, and this is especially true for children.

They have no prior experience, and usually no information to help them comprehend what “dead forever” means. All too often, parents wait until the child begins to “act out” his/her grief in disruptive ways before realizing that the child is hurting and needs help. A child in emotional turmoil is frequently labeled a bad child, a disruptive child, a problem child, when the child is, in reality, a grieving child in pain. This pain needs to be addressed, or the “bad child” label will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Children express their grief differently depending on their age. An infant will be fussy and cry more than normal. A child age six or under will ask for details over and over, and may alternate between tears and going out to play as if nothing had happened. Children ages six to 12 have a more mature understanding of death, but may regress, and need a great deal of reassurance. A teenager has an adult understanding of death, but has fewer coping skills. The teenagers’ responses are superimposed on the emotional roller coaster of adolescence.

When children are not given the opportunity to grieve, they may learn to avoid love, to withdraw emotionally from others, and to build a life free of emotional turmoil so that they never experience great joy or great pain. Children who have lost a loved one can benefit from being part of a group that provides them with loving support and the safety to ask questions and find answers.

All grieving children and teens need the following: To understand that the person is dead. Young children are helped most when we tell them the truth in direct, concrete language.

  • To experience the pain and emotions associated with grief. This takes a lot of time because a child’s grief will be reawakened with each new developmental stage.
  • Someone who will listen.
  • Your time.
  • Reassurance of being loved and cared about.
  • Encouragement to discuss his or her innermost fantasies, fears, thoughts, and feelings.
  • The truth. Never tell a child something they will later come to learn is not true.
  • Trust your children enough to tell them the truth so that they will know they can trust you.

©Virginia A. Simpson, Ph.D.

Whether your loss has been sudden or expected, Dr. Simpson can guide and assist you as you learn to cope with the depth of emotions and experiences that are part of healthy grieving.  Dr. Simpson is also experienced in helping individuals face the end of their own lives as well as assisting families who are caretaking terminally ill loved ones. Dr. Virginia Simpson specializes in all aspects of greif counseling and is a grief specialist with many years of experiece.