While there’s no right or wrong way to cope with loss, there is a healthy way. Many children who find themselves dealing with loss for the first time don’t have the tools or knowhow to cope with their grief. It is up to parents to offer the support, guidance and encouragement necessary to help their child develop healthy coping skills that will serve them into the future.
Describe Grief, and Encourage It
Upon first encountering grief or loss, children may feel confused, scared and alone. Dr. Gregory De Pol, a licensed mental health counselor with a specialty in childhood grief, suggests one way to help is by explaining what grief is and why it occurs.
“Grief is a natural process of reacting to a loss,” De Pol tells Parentology as an approach for discussing grief with children. “Loss is the feeling of not having someone or something important to you.”
Once a child grasps this concept and can put a name to the new emotion, De Pol encourages letting kids grieve on their own terms. “Children are different and deal with grief in different ways at different ages,” he says. “Some aren’t as verbal or expressive and may behave differently, such as becoming withdrawn or acting out. They may not say how they feel. Sometimes it’s better to use other ways for them to express themselves, such as drawing or play therapy.”
An important thing for parents to do, De Pol says, is to let children know grief is a normal part of life.
What Healthy Grief Looks Like
Christina Furnival, a licensed professional clinical counselor and motherhood blogger, suggests supporting a grieving child by modeling productive grief.
“Children often take their cues for how to feel or behave from what they see their parents do,” Furnival tells Parentology. She recommends allowing yourself to grieve and cry in front of your children, reassuring them feeling sad is normal.
“If you try to pretend you’re not affected, children will sense you’re in pain and covering it up, which then makes them feel shameful if they can’t contain their own emotions,” Furnival says.
Additional Ways To Help a Child Grieve
De Pol and Furnival share additional tips for parents helping a child grieve:
- Be honest and use age-appropriate language. Never try to shelter a child from death or loss.
- Explain the afterlife. If your family is religious, explain the concept of heaven. If not, tell your child your loved one will continue to exist in your hearts and minds.
- Create a memory piece for your child and family to cherish. Many families plant flowers, succulents or trees in memories of lost loved ones.
- Let your child know you’re available, whether to answer more questions or just to lend some extra comfort.
De Pol recognizes that when children experience grief, chances are parents are, too. He offers advice on how to operate in such circumstances.
“Adults are more verbal, and that helps them,” De Pol says. “Find a friend to talk about and express grief or loss to as an outlet, don’t want to put it on your kids. Holding it all in isn’t much help to your kids, either.”
As for the possibility of extended grief, De Pol tells parents to watch for behavioral changes and to seek professional help if the grief continues beyond three months.
“When children become too withdrawn, it can lead to depression,” he warns. “[At this point], look for resources in the community. There’s always a community mental health center if children aren’t doing well.”