Helping Your Child Cope With Change and Loss

All Ages

As well as you prepare, plan and care for your child, he is going to experience change and grief that are out of your control. How you deal with these events in your child’s life (and how you teach your child to deal with them) can affect his emotional health and willingness to share with you in the future.

Whether it’s a divorce, the death of a family member or pet, or even moving to a new neighborhood, big changes can be overwhelming for a child. And just like an injury to your child’s body, this pain may take a long time to fully process or heal.

Here are some ways to help your child when he experiences a change or loss in his life.

Be honest about what is happening

“Sugar-coating” or telling half-truths will only postpone pain and undermine the trust your child has in you. If the family pet were to die, don’t say something like, “The dog went to sleep forever.” Be honest, and don’t delay the news for weeks.

Also, don’t offer false comfort. For example, if you and your partner have separated, don’t say something like, “Dad might be moving out for now.” Be concrete and say, “Dad is moving out.”

Being open and honest will help your child understand what’s really happening so he can begin to process and heal. This approach applies to children of all ages. For younger kids, simplify the language to help them understand.

Let your child be upset

When a big life change or loss happens:

  • Let your child feel what she feels for as long as she needs to. There is no time frame for grief. Be as supportive, patient and accepting as you can be.
  • Listen and answer questions without judgment. If an appropriate answer doesn’t come easily to you, it’s OK to tell your child you will think about it and respond later.
  • Don’t try to fix things. Of course, seeing your child in emotional pain is uncomfortable for you. But Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life licensed therapist Jody Baumstein, LCSW, says, “Trying to move the feelings along faster than is naturally possible by saying, ‘It’s OK,’ or ‘It was meant to be,’ minimizes your child’s pain and tells her it’s no longer OK to feel this way. It’s best to see your child’s pain, tend to it and allow it to be. If you try to shut it off, it will come out in other ways. Also, a child is not going to talk to you about it anymore if she feels shame that she is still hurting.”

Be vulnerable and show your own emotions

A loss or major change can affect the whole family. It’s OK to show your emotions in front of your children. It’s OK to cry and talk about it. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that parents should try to contain their emotions as best they can. The goal is to keep your child from feeling like she needs to take care of you.

Maintain normalcy and help your child to feel in control

After a change or loss, try to keep life at home as predictable and as “normal” as you can. Baumstein says, “Keeping a consistent family dinner and bedtime routine can create a great sense of comfort because they’re still happening, even after the loss or change.”

Also, helping your child gain a sense of control over his own day-to-day life can help. During a chaotic time, help your child by offering choices in other parts of his life. For example, if you’ve moved to a new neighborhood, your child may be feeling sad about losing old friends and routines. Consider letting him pick a sport or extracurricular activity in the new area.

Expect the range of emotions that will follow

Every child responds to change and loss a bit differently. Some kids act out angrily, while others may regress to acting much younger. These are normal behaviors that are a child’s way of communicating what she doesn’t have words for or when she doesn’t even fully understand what she is feeling. Again, be patient and supportive; these new behaviors are often symptoms of pain and part of the normal healing process.

Learning effective ways of communicating about—and coping with—change and loss is a great way to build resilience (the ability to handle life’s ups and downs).

If your child’s reactions or behavior become more than you feel you can handle alone, speak to your child’s pediatrician about treatment options.