Parenting: An Age-By-Age Guide to Helping Children With Grief / An age-by-age guide for understanding your childís mourning

Brenda Nixon
January 22, 2013
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Hurricanes, terrorist attacks, accidents, old age, shootings, and terminal illnesses are a part of life. Death is never an if; it’s a when. And with loss of people, pets, and the familiar comes a stinging sadness. Educating children about death and guiding them through grief is something we prefer to avoid. But it’s one of our teachable moments. With our help, children can appreciate the feelings that are unique to this occasion, acquire new coping skills and learn how to embrace life.
Remember these two basic rules: Children grieve differently than adults and they’ll struggle with grief both now and in the future. Stacy Harp, Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, says, “Children perceive death differently than adults because they are not fully developed intellectually or emotionally. It is very important to be sensitive to when they want to communicate, and also to be comfortable enough with them to discuss the topic yourself.”  

Other ways to assist depend upon your child’s age.
3–5 year olds…
  • will sense a loss even if adults try to hide it. Youngsters pick up nonverbal cues from you, family members, friends and even through the media.
  • don’t understand death. They think dead people continue to eat, drink and go to the bathroom in Heaven. Harp explains that young children perceive “…death as temporary or reversible because they watch cartoons that often ‘come back to life.’ What they see is what they understand.”
  • have magical thoughts. They can think, if I walk on a grave, the person feels it; if I had bad thoughts about the person then I caused the death; or if I wish it, I can make someone live again.
As a result, they may have…
  • increased clinginess on or dependency toward you.
  • more tantrums
  • bed wetting or constipation
  • nightmares or sleepwalking
So what can you do to help?
  • Use the word “death” or “dead;” never say, “went to sleep” or “passed away.” Get used to saying the word so it becomes less shocking.
  • Answer questions in short sentences using simple, honest words.
  • Give physical and verbal comfort as needed. Holding a child is an effective calming tool.
  • Stick to day and nighttime schedules, including the same bedtime every night.
  • Dolls, pictures or stories can help you answer questions or explain what happened. “Find a good storybook that deals with the issue of loss or grief and spend some time reading the book to the child and then allow the child to ask questions and make observations,” advises Harp. “Many children may also benefit from drawing pictures of their loved ones and expressing things they may not be able to verbalize.”
6–12 year olds…
  • struggle with death as a permanent concept. They may expect the dead person or pet to return.
  • believe death won’t happen to them.
  • may show a delayed response. It could be a week or a month later when they mourn.
  • ask more questions about “what happened” or show curiosity in causes of death.
  • may confuse words like soul and sole or retell the death using incorrect words.
As a result, they may exhibit…
  • loss of concentration resulting in daydreaming or poorer school performance.
  • resistance to going to school.
  • real or imagined abdominal pain, nausea, or headaches.
So what can you do to help?
  • Be prepared for resistance to bedtime or going to school.
  • Limit TV viewing of world tragedies that can fuel more fears.
  • Read books about death and dying.
  • Let them have closure. Because children are concrete thinkers, Harp advises giving them “tangible ways to express their grief. So allowing them to go to the memorial service is good, and having a transitional object like a teddy bear or something that will remind the child of what was lost can also be helpful.”
  • As much as possible, maintain the same household routines, bedtimes and mealtimes. Children feel safer when their life is comfortably predictable.
  • view death as a natural enemy, but think, “It won’t happen to me!”
  • see death as unavoidable, so they may ask, “What’s the purpose of life?” or “Why is life unfair?”
  • view getting old as the process leading to death
As a result, they may…
  • feel guilty, angry, confused or even responsible for the death
  • stay up watching TV to avoid going to bed alone
  • try to relieve grief through jokes, laughing or acting silly
  • struggle with not knowing how to feel, how to show emotions or when to act a certain way
  • withdraw or feel panic about the future
So what can you do to help?
  • “The best way to help a teenager is to be available when they are ready to talk,” says Harp. Teens are unpredictable and can blurt out thoughts about death when you least expect it. “Remember teens are in the process of individuation and when a death occurs, it puts them in a hard place because they want to ‘be an adult’ but they may have to admit they still need their parents.”
  • Answer all concerns. If you don’t know, be honest and say so.
  • Remind them that a person’s life, not his death, is most significant
  • Ask others such as ministers, youth leaders or friends to check on your teen if you don’t know how to handle certain situations.
  • Enroll your teen into a peer support group. “Peer support groups are the best because this gives the teen a sense of control and also connects them with others their age who are also grieving,” explains Harp. “Most teens will benefit from a peer support group that deals with grief, rather than talk to parents.”
Grieving is unique and personal. Reach out for help in guiding your children through it. Your community, church, family and friends can equip you to be the teacher each child needs. When you give love, understanding and support, you may be surprised at how well your children grow through grief.

As a parenting speaker/author, Brenda Nixon is dedicated to building stronger families through parent empowerment. She speaks at family events and parenting and childcare conferences, is the author of The Birth to Five Book and is a contributing author to 31 other titles. Visit her website for more information.

Children's Books About Grief

These children’s books may help your child learn about grief and work through their own mourning.
Tough Boris, by Mem Fox. About a pirate who cries when his parrot dies. Teaches that people can be both tough and tender.
The Hickory Chair, by L. Fraustino. A boy with a visual impairment grieves the death of his grandmother.
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. Classic story about three friends: a pig, a rat and a spider. When the spider dies, her friends grieve and remember special things about her.

Local Resources for Grieving Children

If your child needs help dealing with grief, contact one of the following grief support centers or camps for children in Dallas-Fort Worth.
The Warm Place
Fort Worth, 817/870-2272
Journey of Hope
Plano, 972/964-1600
Grief Works and Camp Erin
Dallas, 972/960-9981
El Tesoro de la Vida Grief Camp
Week-long resident camp for children 6–17
July 28–August 3 at the El Tesoro camp in Granbury
Application preferred by July 19
Call Lydia at 817/831-2111 x158


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