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How to Help Your Child Cope with Grief

Learn how to help your child cope with grief in this Howcast video about child anxiety issues.


I'm going to talk about how to help your child cope with grief. There's a few things to keep in mind when you're helping your child. One is their age. And their age determines both what they can understand, and how they're going to react. So very young children and infants really can't understand the idea that someone is never coming back. But by age 8 or 10, a child can really understand that somebody is gone, they're not coming back, their body doesn't work anymore, it could happen to anybody at any time, and of course, they could die or other people they really care about die.

Now, in terms of their emotional reaction, again infants are reacting to changes around them, whereas toddlers are going to be showing more signs possibly of, again, there's change but they may have tantrums - regress to earlier behavior. And then you get school-age children and teenagers that understand everything, and they will look more traditionally sad or withdrawn, possibly, or upset. Or then they may have feelings that are so difficult, that they go underground and they're quiet about them, as opposed to acting out and angry about them.

Children's grief reactions often show up in their thoughts in terms of things that they might be worried about, things that they're concerned about, their feelings in terms of their sadness, maybe feeling not so positive inside, and that may show up as stomach aches and other kinds of headaches and somatic complaints. And their behaviors - they may act out. They may, again, have tantrums or be clingy or withdrawn.

One of the first things to do to help a grieving child is to make sure that you talk to them and give them clear and honest and age-appropriate information that they can understand. Because you want to make sure that they have the real facts, and it's from you. Because when things are kept a secret, it makes them often feel more worried and use their imagination. And their imagination is often more scary. So you want them to know they can come to you to get the information, and that they can trust you. You also want to show them that you will take care of them, and you do that by reassuring them, but also by making their life go back to normal in whatever way possible in terms of their routines, going back to school, come of their usual activities. Have them be with people that are familiar to them and comforting to them.

You also want to make sure you stay connected to each other, and also always stay connected to that person who has died as a way of keeping them and their presence in your life. One thing to keep an eye out for is children that may be having a difficult reaction. And sometimes, that might be a child that's more depressed or anxious than we expect, and is having a hard time getting past that, or knowing how to cope with those sad and anxious feelings. It's not that they have to be happy, but for someone reason, but for some reason they seem to be more stuck and it's going on for an extended period of time and it's interfering with their life.

And some children may have what we call a "traumatic reaction" to a death, and that's where they perceive it as difficult. Perhaps it was shocking or sudden, and they have a reaction where they may be overwhelmed. They may re-experience that death. They may have a hard time getting those thoughts out of their mind. They may be on overdrive in terms of being overly-alert and aroused and worried physically about what's going to happen, and be on edge.

They may feel guilty - that's out of proportion, of course, and unrealistic to the situation. And when that happens and it's getting in the way of their doing their school work or being with their friends or dealing with their emotions - when that's getting in the way of their being with their friends, doing their school work, finding some times when they can experience some joy - you want to make sure to find an expert that can help you and your child manage those feelings, learn how to cope with maybe those traumatic reactions, as well as the overwhelming sadness and worry they might be having.

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