Therapist Blog

How to Help Children Cope with Grief

"There is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think." ~ Winnie the Pooh

Children and teenagers are not immune to facing loss, death and grief.

As much as we adults want to protect and shelter children and try to create a world for them in which loss does not occur, we cannot. Sorrow is part of life, for children as well as for adults. What we can do is teach children how to cope with these sorrows.

The following tips, gathered from my work as a child psychologist, will help parents, teachers, and other caregivers support children who have experienced significant loss.

Don’t assume that all children of the same age process loss in the same way. Children are different, just like adults, and they experience loss in different ways. Listen to the unique ways that children express grief and focus on their individual needs, not on how you think grief should be dealt with.

  • Encourage children to ask questions about loss and death. Children need to explore things they don’t understand and asking questions is a natural way for them to gain understanding. Treat their questions with respect and a willingness to help them find answers.
  • Grieving is a process, not an event. Give children time to grieve in the manner that works for them. It doesn’t help to rush grief. In time, children will overcome the pain of loss and move on.
  • Don’t misrepresent the truth. Children are often sensitive and will see through false information and wonder why you don’t trust them with the truth. Lies don’t help children through the healing process or help them develop effective coping strategies for future tragedies or losses.
  • Help children understand loss and death. Often, children need information about what happened so that they can absorb and work through their grief. Be sensitive to what information can help and to their need to know what happened. Children are the best guides as to what information they should know.
  • Don’t assume that children always grieve in a predictable, orderly way. Like adults, children grieve in different ways. In spite of what experts may say, there is no one correct way for children to move through the grieving process.
  • Let children know that you want to understand their experience of grief. Sometimes children don’t know why they are upset or what they need. Let them know that you want to understand and help them through the process. If you give them time and encourage them to share their feelings with you, they will be better able to sort out those feelings and tell you about them.
  • Sometimes children need long-lasting support. The more severe and complicated the loss, the more difficult recovery can be. Be sensitive to the fact that grieving takes time, sometimes a long time. As a child psychologist, I know how important patience is in working with children who have suffered loss. Allowing children time goes a long way in healing the wounds of major loss.
  • Understand that grief is complicated. Loss often brings up thoughts, feelings and reactions that are difficult for children to comprehend. Rather than following a straight line, the process of grieving can wind through and around many issues for children. The more you understand this and are sensitive to what the process brings up, the better off children will be.

Getting Help

Children are highly resilient. Even though they may be deeply affected by loss, most children will recover in time.

If, however, children do not seem to be recovering, consider getting help. A doctor, school guidance counselor, child psychologist or other mental health professional can provide assistance and recommendations.

Parents can't always shield kids from sadness and losses. But helping them learn to cope with grief builds emotional resources they can rely on throughout life. This may be the best way we can help the children we love.

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is a child psychologist in San Francisco with over 20 years of experience. To schedule a free initial consultation, please call 415-922-1122.