How to Help a Grieving Child

By Marcia Hall

As too many adults now know, children are not always safe from harm, and they are definitely not safe from grief.  Grief for a child comes in many forms and for many reasons.  Sometimes it can be triggered by a horrific event, like a school shooting, even though the child did not personally know anyone lost.  Other times it’s triggered by something closer to home, where the child loses someone they knew well and cared about.  More often, however, grief for a child is triggered by the little things that adults rarely think about.  No matter what the cause, healing from that pain is necessary for the child to feel secure once again.  Parents can help children through the healing process.

Embrace the child’s grieving process.  Every person has a different way of showing emotion.  Some people keep busy to distract themselves, while others want to sit and do nothing.  Some are introspective while grieving, while others need to talk about the event that sparked the grief with a lot of people.  There is nothing wrong with any of these emotional methods.  Children’s grief often takes on a process that adults don’t understand.   Parents need to allow their child to talk when he feels like talking and stay silent when he wants to.  They need to allow the child to distract himself from the grief with play or chores, but also to rest when he needs too.  If the child needs to cry, sit and cry alongside him.  Sometimes that is the best way to help heal a broken heart.

Model healthy grieving for the child.  Parents often hide their own sadness in order to protect their children from feeling that sadness too.  The truth is that a child needs to see that his parents get sad sometimes as well.  Otherwise, when he feels upset about something, he will think that the best way to handle his sadness is to retreat from people and hide how he feels.  He may interpret the adults hiding their sorrow with his own feelings of shame and fear.

Don’t hide the story.  Events like the Sandy Hook shooting cause parents to wonder how much information a child should have regarding a horrific event.  While it is possible to give a sensitive child too much information, it is best to share at least some of the story to control the initial message he receives.  This is especially true in situations where a tragedy is widely known and children will inevitably overhear at least part of the story.  Often parents of younger children believe their child is too self-involved to hear what is being said.   However, children understand far more than parents usually realize.   It takes just a second for a child to overhear something on the news or in a phone call.  Perhaps they simply sense the tension in the house and figure out that something is wrong.  When parents hide the story, children use their imaginations to figure out what they don’t know.  Often, children blame themselves in some way for the stress, sadness or anger parents feel.

Choose comments wisely.  Telling the story is important, but it is also vital that parents comfort their child at the same time.  What is said to comfort him has a great deal to do with what parents believe in as far as faith and religion goes.  However, there are some universal themes that are important to keep in mind.  A child should know that if he has questions or concerns he can come to his parents at any time.  Parents should do the best they can to answer those questions and comfort those concerns by communicating that they are doing everything in their power to keep him protected and safe.

Find a way to help.  Sometimes taking action can help the healing process.  When a child hears about a sad or difficult event, help him to discover a way that he can make a difference.  This allows him to see that, while he may not be able to stop bad things from happening, there is a way to recover, heal and make things better.

No parent looks forward to sharing sad news with their child, but the manner that children receive the information can help to begin the healing process.  Children will need to learn to work through their sadness in healthy and effective ways.  The only way children will learn to heal is if they experience grief when they are young and have loving people in their lives to help them work through it.

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