How To Help A Grieving Child Or Adolescent

The key steps in knowing how to help a grieving child or teen is to understand how they grieve, knowing what to expect during the grieving process, and the development of strategies to manage different grief reactions.

Children grieve differently to adults

Grief encompasses the psychological and physiological responses a person experiences after the loss of a significant person. Children and adolescents who have lost someone close to them will experience a range of feelings, thoughts, physical reactions, and behaviours associated with grief over the days, months, and years that follow the loss.

Navigating your way as a parent through your child’s grieving process is challenging, especially when you are also grieving. Children’s expressions of grief are different to adults, and they may slip in and out of grief. They may appear to be coping some days, whilst other days they struggle greatly. Differing expressions of grief may be influenced by various factors, such as age, family situation, relation to the deceased, and how expected or unexpected the loss was to them. As a parent, it is important to recognise and nurture your needs as you are navigating the challenge of how to help a grieving child. You will strengthen your ability to navigate both your own and your child’s challenging grief journey by prioritising self-care.

Do children and teens grasp the concept of death?

When thinking about how to help a grieving child or teen, you may have wondered how much they grasp the concept of death. Their age and developmental level have considerable influence on their understanding of death. Typically, children between the ages of 7 and 13 struggle to develop an understanding of death as permanent. At this age, children have a limited capacity for expressing themselves through language and may express their feelings behaviorally. Adolescents, usually between the ages of 14 to 17, are capable of abstract thinking and can conceptualise death in a more adult manner. Adolescents understand more fully that their lives will be different, and they have the capacity to understand the universality, irreversibility and inevitability of death. It is important when navigating how to help a grieving child or teen that their understanding of death based on their age and developmental level is considered.

What are the typical feelings, behaviours & physical reactions?

Recognising and understanding the typical feelings, behaviours and physical reactions that your child or teen may experience is a key step in how to help a grieving child or teem. Both children and teenagers will typically experience the following:

Feelings
Fear

Shock
Longing
Guilt
Anxiety
Loneliness

Behaviours
Crying
Social withdrawal
Restless hyperactivity

Anger
Vulnerability

Absent-minded behaviours
Avoidance
Adolescents may feel resentment

Physical reactions
Tightness in the chest

Sadness
Despair

Hollowness in the stomach
Dry mouth
Shortness of breath
Oversensitivity to noise
Weakness in muscles
Lack of energy
Appetite disturbance
Weight loss or gain
Sleep disturbances

What does your child or teen need from you?

A vital step in addressing the burning question ‘how to help a grieving child or teen’, is to provide them with a safe space that is non-judgmental and encourages emotional expression in whatever way is right for them. Bereaved children and adolescents need you to reassure them that emotional expression is healthy. They want you to be there for them by providing them with empathy and care, but also opportunities to regain a sense of control and choice. Reassure your child or adolescent that they will get through this difficult time, and ensure that you acknowledge their strengths and courage. It is important that you provide them with adequate support to help them heal from their grief. Feel the Magic offer free camps, programs, resources and a community of families to help children health after the death of a loved one. Click here to enquire.

Key tips for how to help a grieving child or teen:

  • Try to maintain their typical routines.
  • Provide care, reassurance and ensure they feel valued.
  • Use active listening skills.
  • Provide simple, clear, honest, and age-appropriate answers.
  • Normalise emotional expression and talking about grief.
  • Provide them with information about grief.
  • Encourage emotional expression – verbally, creatively, or physically.
  • Reassure them that it was not their fault that the person died.
  • Specifically for teens, it is crucial to set and maintain clear boundaries, offering sensitivity to their needs.
  • Provide them with an environment that offers trust and security.
  • Help them create a diary, memory box or special book to remember their loved one.