Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
 
Healthy Living

Grief & Loss in Childhood: How to Help Your Child Cope

Childhood Grief: When to Seek Additional Help Childhood Grief: When to Seek Additional Help

​By: David J. Schonfeld, MD, FAAP & Arwa Nasir, MBBS, MSc, MPH, FAAP

Death creates a deep, lifelong impact for kids in every part of the world. Here in the U.S., around 1 in 20 children will lose a parent by age 16—and countless others will grieve for a grandparent, sibling or someone else they love.

Doctors who treat children and teens know the health impact that serious losses like these can have. In a busy practice, pediatricians see at least one child per week who may be grieving the death of a relative or friend. Here’s what to know when your child is mourning a loved one—and how your pediatrician can help.

When children mourn the loss of someone close to them

Grief is the pain we experience after losing something or someone we love. Although people grieve many kinds of loss or separation, grief is often linked with the pain that follows the death of someone close to them.

Children of all ages may mourn the loss of someone whether they were family or not. Neighbors, friends, teachers, coaches, caregivers and others they loved or cared about may touch off a time of mourning.

Grief can cause disbelief, denial, confusion, anger, anxiety and deep longing for a loved one to come back. These emotions can affect a child’s physical health, since they can interfere with healthy sleep, regular meals and more. Losses that feel overwhelming can also fuel anxiety, depression, self-harm and thoughts of suicide in children and teens.

Other kinds of loss that can trigger a child’s grief

It’s helpful to realize that other forms of loss can create grief, too. For example, kids who desperately miss a divorced parent they no longer live with, or whose close family members are in jail or prison, may feel the loss very deeply. Others whose parents have been deported or moved away for work opportunities may suffer, too.

How long will my child grieve?

No two children (or adults) respond to loss in the same way. What happened before, during and after a loved one’s death will color a child’s feelings.

Kids who live in areas plagued by violence or armed conflict may have mourned many other deaths before this one without adequate emotional support to develop coping strategies and resilience to future loss. This can leave them more vulnerable to complicated grief—more severe and prolonged than expected—rather than better prepared. Those who survived a shooting, car crash or natural disaster that killed others might feel intense grief when another death happens.

Whatever your child’s history or circumstances, keep in mind they won’t simply "get over" a loved one’s death within a few months. They will spend the rest of their lives dealing with the loss. Future milestones such as graduating from high school or college, moving to a new home, falling in love or becoming parents themselves can throw "adult children" who lost someone dear to them off-course, even decades later.

Good news: healthy support now can make a lasting difference

Though you can’t fully erase the pain your child feels, there are many ways to help them deal with their grief. The steps you take now will protect their health and enable them to navigate grief and loss better as adults.

  • Be clear and honest. As adults, we might assume that the less we talk about death with children the better. But kids of all ages can benefit when caring adults take time to offer a framework for understanding death, using words that match the child’s age and level of development. It is helpful to discuss how their loved one is not in pain or suffering, for example.

  • Don’t assume that older children are fine, even if they seem calm and accepting. You might open a conversation by saying, "I’m wondering which part of this is the hardest for you." If kids can’t or won’t talk, let them know you love them and try again later. Children may hide their own grief because they believe it will make others—especially parents—feel worse.

  • Allow feelings to flow. Let them know that it’s healthy to cry or talk about how we feel when we’re sad. Open the door by saying something like, "I’m glad you’re brave enough to show how you feel, because I’m sad too, and being with you makes me feel less alone."

  • Address harmful beliefs—your child’s and your own. You could ask, "Sometimes when bad things happen, people feel like they must have done something bad. I know it wasn’t your fault that your mother died, but a lot of kids still think they are to blame after someone they love dies. Have you ever felt that way?" An open conversation can address a child’s feelings of guilt or shame while reminding you to go easy on yourself, too.

  • Try to keep routines in place. Regular meals, bedtimes and attention to little things like tooth-brushing and laying out clothes for the next day can help kids feel secure and loved, even in times of loss. Adapt and support your child as needed.

    You don’t need to go back to all routines right away, of course, but it’s good to have some predictability. Even small steps that keep home life stable will benefit all of you.

  • Accept help from friends and community. This shows your child that in difficult times, the people around us can make a difference. Welcoming help in the form of meals, chores or rides to work or school also lightens your load, giving you more time and energy to spend with your child.

Are some kids more vulnerable to grief than others?

Your child’s age, overall health and past experiences may also make a difference in their ability to cope with the death of a loved one. Pay close attention to the reactions and needs of:

  • Adolescents. Many ‘tweens and adolescents will try to hide any sign of weakness, which may mean they’re mourning all alone. Kids this age may challenge parents and other loved ones more as they naturally strive for independence, and may feel guilt over past arguments.

  • Teens and young adults in transition. Kids preparing to leave home for careers, travel, college and other young-adult experiences may fear "abandoning" their families or doubt their ability to cope on their own.

  • Children who are adopted, in foster care or kinship care. While certainly not true in every case, kids separated from their birth parents usually already feel a sense of loss. This can multiply the grief or fear they endure when someone close to them dies.

  • Kids with special needs. Children with intellectual, neurodevelopmental, or physical disabilities may need individualized care that helps them tap their inner strengths, offering the idea that mourning is natural and the pain will ease over time.

  • Kids with mental health concerns. If your child or teen has a history of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance use or any other mental health condition, grief may trigger or intensify their symptoms.

When your child may need more support to cope with grief

Many children and teens need focused support in processing grief. Watch for signs of major changes in your child’s approach to everyday life.

For example, you might be concerned if:

  • A child who loves to tell stories becomes unusually quiet, responding to questions with one- or two-word answers.

  • A teen who’s known for being a "take-charge" person struggles to make choices or manage time effectively.

  • A once-friendly preschooler begins to hit, push or shout at classmates or teachers.

What to do if your child is struggling with grief

  • Call their doctor. Pediatricians and family physicians care about the well-being of your child’s body and mind. They can screen for specific health concerns and talk privately with kids who feel reluctant to speak in front of others. They can also refer you to health care specialists for grief counseling and community programs such as support groups and camps for kids grieving a serious loss.

  • Talk with teachers, school mental health professionals, coaches and other support people. Grief can interfere with school, sports, youth groups and other mainstays of your child’s life. While you want to respect your child’s privacy, it’s helpful to let teachers, counselors, coaches and group guides know what’s happening.

    For older children ask their permission and explain why sharing this information with these caring adults is helpful. This empowers them to see your child with compassion, provide learning supports and accommodations, develop plans for addressing grief triggers in class or other groups settings, and share programs and resources that can help your family.

  • Explore online resources. Because death and grief are universal experiences, many tools and insights are readily available for families. Helpful organizations include:

More information on HealthyChildren.org

About Dr. Schonfeld

David Schonfeld, MD, FAAP, is an Executive Committee member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Children and Disasters and a member of the Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. He also serves as Director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and Professor of Clinical Pediatrics, Keck School of Medicine of USC.

About Dr. Nasir

Arwa Nasir, MBBS, MSc, MPH. FAAP, is a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Chair of the AAP Committee on the Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health.

Last Updated
6/17/2024
Source
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright @ 2024)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
Follow Us