Advice & Features Articles

Helping Kids Cope with Grief

By Dr. Dean Beckloff

Grief is more than sadness – it’s pain that feels deep and hard. Sometimes it comes in tiny packages over a smaller loss, and other times it can be the overwhelming kind that is beyond pain. Grief means we’ve come to the cold, hard fact that something that we needed or loved or both is now gone. And we don’t want it to be so…gone.

Losses can come in many forms. For kids, a loss can be about having to move. I’ve worked with several kids who have experienced the grief of leaving their home to go somewhere else. Changes, such as a big move, can potentially be huge for a child or teen, even when parents believe it is for the best. Even as an adult, when I first moved to Dallas, it was a change, and I grieved for my old home. I wanted back where it was familiar, though now I’d never want to leave Dallas! For kids, their world changes during a move, and they don’t realize that adjusting takes time and that likely their grief will dissipate. When my daughter had to attend a new school, she went through grief. Of course, we were blamed as parents, and she felt the loss of her friends and classroom. Life had turned upside down. She bargained with us; she raged; she was hurting. Though she got through it, she first felt grief.

Some griefs are beyond overwhelming such as when someone passes away. This one is also by degree: The loss of an acquaintance can cause true sorrow, but the loss of a family member is nearly impossible to cope with. These losses leave most of us shaken and perhaps changed in ways we may never fully recover from. Some experience these losses, and sadness settles in for the rest of time. Others take this grief, and it propels them forward to bring life and light to others.

As we’ve all heard, grief has stages. There’s shock and denial, then anger, bargaining and depression.  And each of these stages can hit over and over until finally we can reach acceptance.

Most of us want to know how to help our children and our teens when they are hit with grief. Here are some hints on how to help children reach acceptance:

  1. Know which stage of grief you’re dealing with first. There may be great anger, sadness or denial. Additionally, if you’re handling a teen with a great deal of anger or sadness, he or she may have experienced a loss even if you weren’t aware of one.
  2. Be present. If your child wants to be left alone, then honor that. Don’t press, but stay present and make yourself available. Certainly, it’s fine to let your child know you are there to talk, but allow him or her some space, especially at the beginning, when shock and denial may be most evident.
  3. Be aware of their feelings and when it seems right, speak about them. Don’t ask if they are feeling sad – state that your teen or child is feeling sad. The statement “I know you’re very sad” is much more effective than a question. Asking sounds like you don’t really understand.
  4. Keep your same standards and expectations in place, to some degree. I say to some degree because you may have to make room for some adjustments due to grief. But remember that consistency is important, so that your teen or child understands that life does go on.
  5. Don’t minimize the loss. Be understanding and acknowledge that it’s real. Although kids are resilient, they are vulnerable too. Minimizing what the child is experiencing will simply not help.
  6. Realize that it takes time. We have to go through all of the stages. Acceptance may not come quickly. Remember that your various children may have different timelines for reaching acceptance.
  7. Model hope. Show your child that there are ways of finally moving forward, that life does go on.
  8. Realize that your child or teen may need extra help. It’s okay if you or your child needs counseling or medication. It’s important to seek extra help when necessary.

The great writer Henri Nouwen said that we feel we need to hide our pain. But he states that if we have the courage to be vulnerable and allow others to know our pain, we find we have a whole community to render help and assist. Perhaps what is most important is to model doing just that – to be vulnerable ourselves and seek help when needed. Perhaps then our own children will take courage as well, seek help and find a way to look toward brighter days.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Dean Beckloff is a pediatric therapist who specializes in treatment for children and families navigating divorce and other life challenges.  He is the founder of the Beckloff Behavioral Center in Dallas.  If you wish to contact Dr. Beckloff with questions, comments or for a consultation, he can be reached at DrBeckloff.com or 972.250.1700.

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