How To Support Children When A Family Member Dies
How To Support Children When A Family Member Dies
Parents understandably can feel overwhelmed with their own grief when a family member dies. It can be difficult to know how best to support children at this time. While each family has its own culture and traditions that may guide and comfort them following a death in the family, you can also check some of the main ways to support children who are grieving.
Key points to remember about how to support children when a family member dies
Waiho i te toipoto, kaua i te toitoa. Let us keep close together not far apart (Māori Proverb).
- children and teenagers grieve just as much as adults but may show it in different ways
- children have less ability to put into words how they are feeling
- sometimes children may not seem to be directly affected by a death, but you can often see their distress in their behaviour rather than in what they are able to say
- this is a time for lots of hugs and also clear explanations of why their loved one died, in a way that is right for your child's age
What can help babies, children and teenagers who are grieving?
Hold and comfort
Hold and comfort your child. Keep them close to you and your child's usual caregivers.
Be honest about what has happened. Talk to your child in a way that is right for their age. This will help your child make sense of things and help to reduce anxiety and confusion.
Sometimes children temporarily show behaviour usually associated with an earlier stage of development. This is called regressive behaviour. They may start wetting the bed again, or talking with a 'baby' voice. Be patient. Patience and understanding will support your child to get their confidence back in their own time.
Discuss and communicate
Discussion and communication will help your child understand and integrate the bereavement. Follow your child's lead. Answer questions honestly and ask your child what they are thinking and feeling.
Talk about feelings
Talk about feelings and help your child to identify what they are feeling. Your child may be experiencing strong feelings of sadness, anxiety and anger over their loss. Help them to make sense of these feeling by putting words to them.
Keep routines going
Keep to routines as much as possible. Routines will help your child feel secure and reassured that their world continues to make sense.
Understand that grief feelings depend on the relationship with the person who has died
It's important to understand that the stronger the relationship is with the loved one, the more intense the grief feelings may be in times of loss.
Stay calm and show warmth
If possible, when a child 'acts out', remember that they may be overwhelmed by feelings. Stay calm and respond to your child with warmth and empathy.
Acknowledge your child's feelings
If your child becomes overwhelmed with their feelings, it's helpful to acknowledge the way they are feeling. Distraction can also help - "let's go for a walk" or "let's play a game".
Remember that how we grieve is unique
Grief is sometimes described as an emotional fingerprint - it is unique to each of us. There is no normal way to grieve. It is a turbulent time that can effect us physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. The main thing to remember when supporting children and teenagers with their grief is to reassure them you are there to look after them and to help keep them safe.
Some ways to reassure your child:
- inviting rituals into the family as you mourn
- offering choices around grieving ("what way would you like to remember?")
- promoting outlets where feelings can be expressed, such as creative writing, art, sport, dance and play
Also, sharing your own grief can help children understand they are not alone. They may be reassured about their own big feelings. You will also be modelling healthy expression. But, if you are feeling particularly emotional, it may be wise to have some time away from your child. That way, they don't become afraid by the intensity of your loss.
Provide a listening ear
A listening ear and your calm presence can be deeply reassuring.
- ask open questions: "What are you thinking about at the moment?" "How are you feeling?"
- validate feelings and thoughts: "I see that you are very sad right now".
- answer questions truthfully and at the developmental stage that is appropriate.
- affirmation of family and personal strengths: "What can we do together that may help us through this time?"
How does a child's developmental stage affect how they show their distress and grief?
Children and teenagers may show their grief in different ways than adults
Children and teenagers grieve just as much as adults but may show it in different ways. The death of a family member can have a deep effect on children. Children have less of an ability to put into words how they are feeling.
Sometimes children may not seem to be directly affected by a death, but you can often see their distress in their behaviour rather than what they are able to say. They may become more emotional and clingy. They may develop worries and fear that someone else in the family may die. Be understanding that changes in behaviour may be an expression of grief. This is a time for lots of hugs and clear, age appropriate explanations of why their loved one died.
Age and stage matters
Child development is very individual and falls along a continuum depending on your child's age, personality, culture, environment and life experience. Children may have experienced previous losses, including the death of pets. How parents respond to these events helps guide children in how they address their own grief. How a child experiences a bereavement will also be impacted by these individual factors and by their relationship with the person who has died.
Babies, children and teenagers may at times appear to be unconcerned, unaffected or unaware of a death as they continue to play or carry on with their day. A fundamental difference between the way adults and children grieve is that children are not able to hold intense emotion for long periods of time. They tend to grieve in bursts.
Babies, children and teenagers need ongoing support after bereavement. It is not unusual for grief to resurface later, when a child matures and goes through another developmental stage.
Read more about bereavement reactions by age group
How might children react to bereavement?
The following reactions are common. They are likely to settle over time when:
- a child's response to the death is acknowledged
- they are supported to understand their feelings
- they are given age appropriate information and reassurance
It is important to keep normal boundaries in place.
Reactions can include:
- picking up the distress and tension of adults around them
- feeling anxious and insecure
- appearing to 'not react'
- asking lots of questions as they try to work out what death means
- anger (sadness often lies beneath anger)
- feeling responsible
- needing to care for adults
- denying what has happened or taking risks
What helps grieving children?
Every child's grief is unique. There is no magic formula but things that help include:
- clear communication
- providing information
- reassurance that they are not to blame
- help to understand their feelings
- normal routines
- knowing that significant adults are there to help them
- being allowed to ask questions and talk about what has happened
- being listened to
- staying close to their usual caregivers
- reassurance around any fears they may have
You can also read more information about supporting children, parents and whānau experiencing grief
This page last reviewed 23 July 2021.
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