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Talking to Your Children About the Hard Stuff in Life

Helping Children Cope in Times of Crisis


Guiding Kids Through Grief

By Brenda Nixon Hurricanes, terrorist attacks, accidents, old age, war, and terminal illnesses are a part of life today. Death is never an if; it’s a when event. 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, learn new coping skills, and how to embrace life.

If you or someone else asks you, "How do I help my child grieve?" remember these two basic rules: Children grieve differently than adults, and they’ll struggle with grief both now and in the future. Stacy Harp, Marriage and Family Therapist Registered Intern and President of California-based Mind & Media 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.

With a preschooler, here are important things to remember. Three to five 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.

And because of their immaturity, 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 bed hour every night.
  • Dolls or pictures can help you answer questions or explain what happened. Similarly, “finding 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.”

If you have elementary, six to twelve year old, children, remember they:

  • 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.

And because of their development, 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.

If you are parenting teenagers, they may see death as:

  • a natural enemy but “it won’t happen to me!”
  • unavoidable, so “what’s the purpose of life?” or “why is life unfair?”
  • getting old is the process leading to death.

And because of normal teenage development, 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.

You can help teenagers by:

  • “…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.”
  • answering all concerns. If you don’t know, be honest and say so.
  • reminding them it’s the person’s life, not the death, that’s significant.
  • asking others such as ministers, youth leaders, or friends to check on your teen if you don’t know how to handle certain situations.
  • enrolling 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 in being the teacher each child needs. When you give love, understanding, and support, you may be surprised at how well your children grow through grief.

© 2003, revised 2005, Brenda Nixon.

As a speaker/writer, Brenda Nixon ( is dedicated to building stronger families through parent empowerment.

This article has previously appeared on The Knox County Parenting Coalition Web site (, the Inspired Parenting International Web site (, the Partnership for Learning website (, Westchester Parent magazine, and Standard (publication of the Church of the Nazarene). It was also excerpted in Wonder Years.



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