How do you comfort a grieving child? Whether they have lost someone close to them or are affected by tragic news headlines, the emotions that arise can be overwhelming.
Laura Grayson, supervisor of social services at Sharp HospiceCare, offers tips to help children process their feelings and cope with loss in a healthy manner.
Be a good listener.
Sometimes, just providing a space for a child to express their thoughts and feelings without interruption or distraction can be helpful. Being a good listener involves being patient, respectful and empathetic.
“By truly listening to your child, you give them a safe space to share and work through their feelings,” says Grayson. “And by listening, you are given the chance to correct any misconceptions they may have, reassure them and validate their feelings.”
Let your child take the lead in the conversation.
Children are skilled at being in touch with their emotions and they know when their feelings become overwhelming. They are more likely to open up when they feel they are in control of the timing and content of the conversation.
“When it comes to grieving, it is important to allow children to pace the conversation,” says Grayson. “Adults should follow the child’s lead and answer them honestly and respectfully, in an age-appropriate manner.”
According to Grayson, sometimes children use behaviors instead of words to signal they are stressed. “Adults must be observant of the behaviors of their children and the underlying message behind them,” she says.
For example, when a child who used to easily go out into the world becomes clingy and hesitant to leave home, they are “telling” you they don’t feel safe, Grayson says. “They are fearful something could happen to them or to you,” she says.
Don’t force children to talk.
There may be times when a child’s emotions become overwhelming. They may not want to feel or talk about their emotions and prefer to go about their daily life. It is important to let children share their feelings naturally — in their own way and on their own schedule.
“As caregivers, we must take the time to observe the child’s state,” says Grayson. “If they feel disconnected from their emotions, honor that. It is a coping skill they are using, and that is OK.”
Allow your child to provide you with an opportunity to talk. This could be in the form of them asking you a question or expressing a certain emotion or behavior. “Once you are given these opportunities, you can then sit down with your child and talk to them to find out what is going on,” Grayson says.
It is natural to want to protect children from negative news, emotions and thoughts. It may be tempting to protect children by sharing half-truths, avoiding topics or minimizing what has happened. However, children know when you are not being honest with them.
“Children can tell when something just doesn’t sound right or when adults are worried,” Grayson says. “They will also follow your lead if you are not talking about a loss or concern with them.”
This can mean they will suppress their loss because they think they are protecting the adults around them. However, in doing this, they are not given the opportunity to mourn. “The adults are not creating a safe enough environment to allow them to mourn,” she says.
If a child is more concerned about the adults than the emotions and thoughts they are dealing with, Grayson says, it delays their psychological and emotional development. This can cause children to put their own needs on hold, thereby delaying their development into well-rounded adults.
Overall, Grayson says it is important to allow your child space and time, while letting them know you are there for them. “Children are resilient,” says Grayson. “And with time, support and understanding, they can work through their grief.”