Helping kids cope with grief

Grief can be extremely difficult for adults, but even more so for children. Psychologist Dr Sasha Lynn offers 6 tips for adults who are trying to help children understand, cope with, and recover from grief.

There’s no doubt about it, grief can hit us like a ton of bricks. It can be painful, confusing, upsetting and anxiety-provoking. Though it can bring up many difficult thoughts and emotions, as adults, we understand what the feelings mean, and why we’re experiencing them. 

Imagine if you were a child, dealing with all the same emotions. Overwhelming thought, isn’t it?

While we would love to shield children from grief, unfortunately it’s not always possible. Grief doesn’t just arise from death; it can come from a range of life events. Moving towns, moving schools, the breakdown of friendships, parents separating, pets getting sick; they can all have a significant impact on children. The difficult part is, their understanding of emotions and thoughts is still developing, and they don’t quite process things at the same level as adults. For a child, grief can feel like an awful, whirling, sickening ‘thing’ going on inside their bodies, which can be quite scary. 

The way children experience grief varies from child to child. On the outside, it may be seen in a number of ways: separation anxiety, bed-wetting, anger, physical complaints (headaches, stomach aches), issues with sleeping and eating, and withdrawing from activities. These sorts of behaviours can be easily overlooked or attributed to other age-related issues, so being mindful of how grief presents differently in kids is the first step for us to help support them. 

Coping with grief is never easy and there’s no clear-cut way that works for everyone, but here are some tips to support children and help them manage their grief:

Acknowledge their feelings

Part of understanding feelings, is to start talking about them and acknowledging the very real and strong emotions that children are experiencing at that point in time. “I can see how upset you are”, “This can be a very confusing time”, “It looks like you’re feeling pretty worried about things right now” are all useful ways to start the conversation around feelings of grief with children. If they can understand what they’re feeling and give it a name, it can go a long way to help them cope with them.

Be open about what’s happened

In times of grief and loss, it’s natural to try to restrict the amount children hear, or to block them completely from what’s happened. In the long term though, this can actually create more pain for children, and leave them feeling confused. Being as open and upfront as you can (while remaining age appropriate), and using a normal tone (as opposed to a hushed tone), can help them to process what’s gone on, and can support their feelings.
Father and daughter

Keep up with regular routines

Children thrive on consistency. In times of grief, keeping up with your regular routines can help keep things predictable, helping children to feel safe. Regular routines ensure kids know what’s coming up, which is comforting when their life has been thrown into disarray.

Build up support networks in the child’s life

It really does take a village, and when grief hits your child, there are many people in their life who can support them. Make sure you let school, sporting teams and other key players in your child’s life know what’s going on. That way they can continue to support and care for your child and be prepared for any issues that may come up in these environments.

Memory books

A really neat way to help your child cope with grief is to create a memory book with them. A memory book can just be a scrapbook that your child can use, to write or draw favourite memories of the person, place or event which is causing them to feel the grief. You too can add photos or other ideas to the memory book, in order to support them. Then when they’re feeling sad or upset, they can turn to their memory book to help them to focus on the nice memories.

Look after you

You know the whole analogy ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’? It is never truer than when helping kids deal with grief. You have to make sure you are looking after yourself and keeping your own tank full, to help kids fill theirs. Grief can be taxing on everyone, and while you may be processing your own grief, you then have to support your child. It’s not easy. Try to make sure you’re keeping up with regular sleeping, eating and exercise patterns. Talking to others, and giving yourself the chance to grieve will help you to support others around you. 

If you find you’ve tried a number of strategies, and your child does not appear to be improving over time, it is important to see your GP to discuss other support options. A referral to a psychologist or counsellor could be useful to help unpack the grief your child is feeling. 

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