adopted daughter and white father on a bridge looking at the water, grief and loss

All parents want to protect their children from serious losses in their life, but as we adults know, that is impossible.

As children grow, they will likely experience losses through separation from caregivers, such as through divorce or family disruption. They may experience the death or serious illness of a family member, and they may experience loss through adoption. One of our many jobs as parents is to teach our children how to cope with these losses, and to serve as a role model on how to deal with grief and other serious family events in a healthy way. Fortunately, there is verified knowledge on how children react to serious losses and how we can help them.   

7 Tips to Help Your Children (and Yourself) Deal With Grief and Loss

1. Acknowledge your child’s grief. Recognize that children of all ages understand a loss in their own way, based on their cognitive abilities, personal history with other losses and developmental level. Even very young children can sense a deep change in the family when the adults are grieving and need acknowledgement and support from their parents and other caregivers. Children will react to grief and loss in ways that are different from adults. When faced with a family loss, parents need to find ways to take care of themselves as well as their children.   

Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.

Fred Rogers

2. Tailor your strategy. Sudden losses such as a car accident, house fire or natural disaster affect us differently than losses that occur over time or a situation where there was time to prepare. Our reactions and needs in times of sudden loss are often practical and immediate, whereas our grief over the loss of someone who has lived a long life and then faced a long illness resulting in their death follows a more predictable path. We now know that people who experience a sudden loss don’t just need to talk about it; they need sustained practical support to get their life back in order.  Recognizing the differences between sudden losses and those which have occurred over a long period of time will help you tailor your strategy to help your child.  

3. Choose a path of openness. When a loss happens in your family, choose a path of openness that is careful, measured and direct. Keeping secrets from children about important family events causes harm and decreases trust. Instead, talk to children about a loss by including the basic information, and letting them know you will care for them and support them. Listen to how they respond with words, and watch how their bodies respond to difficult news. These cues will inform the next steps for you to take.   

4. Listen to children’s questions. Children’s early reactions to hearing about a loss include magical thinking, where they add their own imagination to a real event. Later, they shift to concrete thinking where the focus is on the practical details of what happened and how it affects them. Listening to children’s questions about an event that has happened will inform you of their level of thinking and help you tailor your responses to their developmental level. Nonetheless, your answers should be clear and accurate, even if they are simplified.  

little girl with Down syndrome laughing with parents

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5. Normalize your child’s emotions. Children’s initial reactions to a deep loss will manifest in a wide array of emotions, including anger, sadness and even aggression. These losses cause children to become “dysregulated,” where their normal coping skills are maxed out. When faced with these situations, you can help by naming what you see and hear, and letting the child know that these reactions are normal and will also fade over time. You can help put words to the acting out of these deep feelings, and over time your child will be able to use their more rational thoughts to gain control over strong emotions. At the same time, children’s strong reactions need to be managed by adults so the child does not hurt themselves or other people, or destroy property.   

6. Look for signs. As children work through their reactions to separation and loss in stages, such as denial, anger and sadness, they eventually begin to incorporate what has happened in their own life. They find pleasure in normal daily activities again, and over time, they come to accept what has happened to them and the other people involved. This process takes time and effort. New losses while recovering from an initial loss may cause setbacks. Look for signs in their words, actions and overall behavior that they are beginning to accept the loss and resume typical daily activities. It’s OK to share with children your own grieving and healing process, with its ups, downs and setbacks.    

7. Share family rituals. Many parents have found that engaging in family rituals that honor a loss, and sharing the rituals together with those affected, have a profound and positive impact on the healing process. Open acknowledgment and the sharing of memories on important dates help with healing and let the child know that they are not alone in their feelings and thoughts about the loss. An understanding that anniversary dates related to losses will likely trigger deep feelings will help you make plans that can help everyone continue to heal and not suffer a deep setback on their own. Children need their parents to be the leaders in these activities, where they see them modeling healthy responses to a deep life loss.  

adoptive parents receiving parent counseling with their adopted child

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All parents encounter challenges as their children grow up. And sometimes, issues may arise that leave you uncertain as to how best to respond. But not every issue requires therapy or counseling. The PACE program is here to help during those times.

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