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Helping Children Deal With Grief

Death doesn't have to occur for child to suffer loss

May 3, 2012
By Rachael Moshman , OVParent

I worked with lower income families of young children in my previous career. I did this through mentoring and training both the parents and the staff at the childcare center the child attended. I frequently helped teachers and parents work together to come up with behavior modification plans for children who were struggling.

The teachers at one of the preschools I worked with had been complaining of a 4-year-old boy's behavior for weeks. He was defiant, aggressive and disruptive. They reported that my usual set of tools and strategies that I suggest were having no impact. The teachers and center director had spoken to Mom several times and she was as baffled by the situation as they were.

The center staff and the child's mother were all frustrated, overwhelmed and defensive as we sat down for a meeting. I started out by asking the teachers when they first noticed the behavior changes. They said it had been about a month. I then asked Mom if there had been any changes at home in the last month or so.

Article Photos

In a very short time frame:

Wow! No wonder this little guy's behavior was out of control. To him, his whole world had spun out of control. Everything he knew had changed.

These were normal life events to Mom. She didn't think about the impact on her child. She thought he was too young to notice. She was mistaken. He felt the changes deeply and didn't know how to make sense of it. He showed his pain through throwing blocks, hitting other children, screaming and running out the door.

This child was grieving. Death doesn't have to occur in order to feel grief or to mourn a loss. Children need their parents and other trusted caregivers to help them understand and process their grief.

Here are some important things to consider:

Your child deserves your honesty. Don't say "Daddy went on a little vacation" if you're divorcing and he's moved to another state. You aren't helping your child by fabricating stories of the wonderful farm Fido is now enjoying when the family dog dies. Tell them the truth in a gentle way that is appropriate for their age and developmental level. If they don't understand at first, keep talking about it until they do. Take a break if the conversation becomes overwhelming and come back to it another time.

Use books, DVDs and props to get the conversation going. Your local library or bookstore likely has a wide variety of material available on death, divorce, moving and other situations that lead to feelings of grief. Read the books with your child or watch a movie together in which the character endures a similar situation. Use the book or movie as a starting point to discuss your child's feelings. Try role-playing with puppets, dolls or stuffed animals to help illustrate the points when speaking to younger children.

Don't make promises you can't keep. My daughter has had many losses in her young life. She frequently begs me to tell her that I will never die. It's so tempting to give in and make that promise because I know she desperately wants to hear it. It's better for her to assure her that I'm doing everything in my power to stay healthy and safe so that I can live a long life.

Allow the child to grieve. Don't attempt to rescue him from his sad feelings. Grieving is a normal part of life that, unfortunately, we all go through more than once in our lifetime. It is important that your child learns that these feelings are OK and develops healthy coping mechanisms for processing their feelings.

Help children find tools for coping. Recognizing and talking about feelings are important tools for overall emotional health, but they take time and practice to develop. Younger children may benefit from having something they can hold and look at, such as a photo book of the school and classmates they are leaving behind. Older children may feel better after writing a letter to the person they have lost or expressing their feelings through art, music, drama or other hobbies.

Realize that grieving takes time. There is no standard time frame or schedule when it comes to the grieving process. Some children will work through it quicker than others. Follow the child's lead and allow as much time as is needed.

Get help if your child is struggling. If your child seems to be having an especially difficult time dealing with the situation, you aren't sure they understand what is happening or you feel it is too much to handle on your own, seek professional assistance. A children's therapist, school guidance counselor or social worker specializing in grief can access your child's emotional state and devise a treatment plan to help your child through this difficult time.

You can't help your child work through their grief if you aren't working through your own. It's OK to let your child see you angry, sad or even crying. Your child will benefit by seeing that they aren't alone in their grief. You can't help your child if you aren't taking care of yourself. Just as you would for your child, get help for yourself if you are having trouble processing your feelings.

Don't make the same mistake as the mother of the little boy who was acting out at the preschool. Children are very aware of their surroundings and often pick up that something upsetting is happening based on the way the adults are behaving. Even babies can be impacted by losing the people, environment or routines they've come to count on.

Loss can be very traumatic for a child. If she isn't given the tools needed to process and cope with her grief, she could wind up with emotional and behavioral problems down the road. It's true that children are resilient and often bounce back quickly. However, they need to understand what is happening and work through their feelings of grief before they can move forward.

- Rachael Moshman is a lifelong Florida resident, but hates the heat. She holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in education with focuses in early childhood, infant/toddler development and special needs. She is a freelance writer and college instructor. Her greatest accomplishment is becoming the last mom to an amazing little girl through foster care adoption. She can be contacted at



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