Helping Kids and Teens Deal With Grief

Grief is a normal and natural response to a significant loss of any kind—whether it’s a family separation or divorce, a big move, or the loss of a loved one. Now more than ever, with COVID-19, everyone is experiencing some kind of loss, including the loss of normalcy and routines, plans and experiences, in-person social interaction, jobs and financial stability, and human life.

Grief can be overwhelming and confusing—especially in the uncertain times of an international pandemic. We all need to help each other as we acknowledge our losses and navigate our grief.

How long should kids grieve?

Everyone processes and reacts to grief differently, and it is normal for feelings to change from day to day or even from moment to moment. We can’t predict what it will look like or how long it will last—especially when there is so much that is still unknown with COVID-19. It’s important to be understanding and patient with your kids and know there isn’t any one right way to deal with loss.

“One of the most important things to know about grief is that there isn’t a quick fix,” says licensed therapist Jody Baumstein, LCSW, with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life. “The only way to truly deal with grief is to acknowledge it, feel it and work through it.”

What does grief look like?

Grief is complicated and looks different for everyone. Not everyone grieves the same way. Many people bounce around common stages of grief, which may include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Regardless of where your child is in the grieving process, you may notice changes in their behavior.

Younger kids may not understand what is happening, or their moods may change drastically (from playing and laughing one minute to anger or tears the next). You may even notice changes in behavior related to their eating or sleeping. Some potty-trained kids may start having accidents, or some kids may start sucking their thumb again when they hadn’t in months.

With older kids and teens, you may notice that they initially don’t want to believe, or refuse to acknowledge, what is happening. They may withdraw and isolate themselves, or you may notice them acting more irritable or angry.

Talking to kids about grief

If you find it hard to talk about something as uncomfortable and unfamiliar as grief, you’re not alone. As parents or caretakers, we can be just as overwhelmed by our kids’ grief as they are.

“You may fear that by bringing up the reason for their grief you’re making it worse or planting the thought in their mind, but avoiding conversations about grief can actually do more harm than good,” says Baumstein. “Children have to recognize their feelings before they can manage them, so it’s important to have direct conversations with your kids to help them explore and understand what they’re experiencing.”

Know that it’s completely OK to not have all the answers, but here are some general tips for talking with your kids about grief.

  • Ask open-ended questions. Instead of making assumptions, ask them what’s on their mind about the losses they’re experiencing. Give them a chance to tell you what is bothering them the most—it may surprise you.
  • Talk openly about grief. It may be easy for kids to identify feelings of anger or frustration, but try to use the opportunity to make connections between the way they feel and the loss they’re experiencing so they can identify the cause. Help them label their true feelings and recognize that grief is normal.
  • Acknowledge their feelings. Even if you don’t fully understand the way your child is feeling, it’s important to acknowledge that the way they feel is real and let them know it’s OK and normal to feel that way. Encourage them to avoid comparing their reaction to loss with anyone else’s. Everyone’s feelings are important when coping with grief, even if they look different.
  • Offer reassurance. Sometimes kids—particularly younger kids—have trouble understanding loss and may incorrectly blame themselves. You may hear them say things like, “Maybe if I called grandma more she wouldn’t have died.” Reassure them that they had nothing to do with it—they are not responsible for what happened.
  • Avoid minimizing or dismissing. It’s natural and tempting to want to make kids feel better, but try to avoid saying things like, “Things happen for a reason” or “You will be stronger because of it.” Even if you mean well, statements like these can make them feel worse and discourage them from continuing to share feelings in the future. Instead, genuinely acknowledge their feelings and help them manage them with the tips below.

Helping kids cope with grief

Once you’ve had a conversation with your child or teen about grief and loss, there are a few things you and your child can do to help them cope with what they are feeling.

  • Keep the dialogue open. Kids’ feelings may change drastically from moment to moment. Encourage them to talk about it. If they don’t want to talk, help them to find other outlets for their feelings, such as journaling or creating art.
  • Focus on the present and things in your control. When we experience loss, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the unknowns and “what if” scenarios. Help kids accept what they can’t change by focusing on the here and now, and what’s within their control. While we can’t control how long COVID-19 will affect our daily lives, we can control how we react to it and try to find the good in little things.
  • Maintain at least one routine. Even if you can’t maintain all your routines, aim to keep at least one. Waking up at the same time, making the beds, walking the dog, having the same dinner or bedtime can help your kids (and you) feel a sense of comfort.
  • Connect with others. Interacting with friends and family helps us to not feel so alone in our grief. While we still need to practice social distancing, encourage your kids to connect with friends and family through FaceTime, Zoom or other tech options. Feeling connected and sharing experiences with others can help us feel less alone in our grief.
  • Make time for laughter and joy. When facing grief and loss, it can feel like a struggle to find joy. It may even feel inappropriate or insensitive to have fun after suffering loss. Help your child understand they can hold more than one feeling at a time. They can feel sadness and feel happiness. They can feel disappointment and feel hope. Whether it’s playing a game or watching a funny video, taking moments to laugh and have fun will be a nice break for the entire family.
  • Practice healthy habits. Sleep, exercise and balanced nutrition are all important basics for the health of both your body and mind. You can also encourage kids to regularly practice other coping strategies to help them manage their feelings, such as listening to music, creating art, journaling, deep breathing, grounding, progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery.
  • Be a role model. Use yourself as an example. Whether it’s sharing your own grief about losses you’ve experienced or demonstrating how you use healthy coping strategies, create opportunities to model healthy behaviors for your child or teen.

Accepting grief and moving forward

“There are no rules with grief,” says Baumstein. “No rules about who’s allowed to grieve, what losses can be grieved or any limit on how long grief should last. One thing we know for sure is that grief takes time.”

Grief is a process to be worked through, and it can’t be rushed. Encourage your child to be patient and kind to themselves throughout the process. Their feelings may change rapidly from day to day—help them understand that this is normal and OK.

You may not feel like you have all the answers for them (or for yourself), so just do your best. Sometimes kids don’t even want answers—they just want to be seen and heard. By being there for your kids and helping them deal with tough feelings of grief, you’re setting them up to be resilient in the face of future ups and downs.

If at any time you’re concerned about your child’s emotional wellness, reach out for help. Many mental health professionals are currently providing services online or over the phone, and new resources are becoming readily available: The Georgia COVID-19 Emotional Support Line provides free and confidential assistance, 24/7, to callers needing emotional support or resource information as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Emotional Support Line is staffed by volunteers, including mental health professionals and others trained in crisis counseling. Call 866-399-8938.

If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call the Georgia Crisis and Access Line (GCAL) at 1-800-715-4225. You can also chat or text for support by downloading the MyGCAL app in the app store or on Google Play. For those outside of Georgia, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Any thoughts of suicide should be taken seriously.