Healing Little Hearts: Helping Kids Grieve

IMAGE Whether they are dealing with the death of a family member or of a beloved pet, kids can and do feel the loss as deeply as adults. Parents, though, often do not know how to help their children grieve. In fact, by pushing to make it better or by urging their kids to just smile, moms, dads, and relatives can actually do harm. If the grief process is stifled, it may eventually result in depression or behaviors such as the use of drugs or alcohol. Although grief is an individual journey, adults can help children through the process.

Let Kids Grieve Like Kids

Kids and adults grieve differently. Children can only tolerate the intensity of their feelings for a short period of time, so they grieve in spurts. As a result, kids may swing from playfulness to despair in a matter of minutes. Give them room for their full range of feelings.

Be Supportive, Yet Non-intrusive

While it is important to let children know you are available, do it in a way that lets them be in control of when and how they share their feelings. Follow their lead.

Help Kids Identify Their Emotions

Because of their limited experience with grief, children may not even have the vocabulary to convey their many emotions, including sadness, anger, fear, and helplessness. One of the most helpful things an adult can do is to give names to what the child is feeling.

Give Age-Appropriate Information

What you tell a preschooler about her grandmother's death is likely to be different from what you share with a teenager. But whatever you do, tell the truth at all times.

Look for External Support Systems

Contact your child's school, a local hospice, religious institution, or university for referrals to children's programs. Your pediatrician can also advise you on how to share appropriate information with your child.

Expect Your Child to Regress

Kids, especially younger ones, can experience developmental setbacks, so do not be surprised if your child goes back to thumb sucking or bedwetting. Extra attention can help your child feel more secure.

Be Aware of Danger Signs

While sleeplessness, anxiety, sadness, and lack of interest in friends and activities are common symptoms of grief, they may indicate a more severe problem if it is extreme. Seek professional assistance if these symptoms continue to worsen or do not improve after a month or 2.

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