Helping Children and Teens through Loss

IMG_9350rParents often struggle with finding ways to help kids dealing with hard events that happen in life. This week our community lost another young life. Here is some advice for parents on how to help their kids through this difficult time.

1. Talk to your kids.  If a tragedy happens in a community then the whole community grieves.  Regardless of the age of your child, they will likely be exposed to this event in one way or another if they are a part of this community. Even if your child does not know the victim or family directly, the school, sports teams and anyone connected directly or indirectly are likely to have a reaction. It is not just the tragic loss of a young life that has happened. The loss of his life will ripple through the lives of our youth in ways that are too soon to understand.

2. Ask questions and listen.  What is your teen hearing at school, on the field or wherever else they hang out? What are your child’s thoughts on what happened? If you are listening you will hear the misinformation and more importantly be able to hear their fears. You will be better able to dispel disinformation and reassure fear if you keep your ears open and your mouth closed.

3. Let them know that they are safe. Kids and teens are just like adults. They need to feel safe. We often like to believe that bad things don’t happen to good people. When faced with the reality of life, we all are often shaken up. While it is important not to lie, it is also important for them to have perspective. Remind them that this is an isolated event. This  won’t happen every day and that it is unlikely to happen to them or someone they love. Acknowledge the risk but focus on the protective factors.

4. Empower them. There are things people can do to keep themselves as safe as possible. This is the time to remind youth about how to obey laws and traffic safety. It is a time to teach kids about the importance of being present to what is going on around them and to be aware of potential dangers.  That isn’t always enough to prevent these types of tradgedies but it is something tangible that they can do.

5. Be honest. Teens and children need to know where to go for the truth. If you don’t talk about it, make up or gloss over details, your kids will know it. You don’t need to go into graphic detail, only answer what your child is asking.   

6. Watch your language. Young children are very concrete. They don’t understand flowery language like “passed on” or “went to sleep.” It often makes us feel better softening the words but it can confuse and scare children. They need concrete language that they can understand such as “died” and “his body stopped working.” That doesn’t mean you have to leave your religious beliefs out, but be cautious about being too vague.

With teens you can be more philosophical, their ability to handle abstract thinking is more mature. Make sure to explore their understandings and beliefs, not just present your own. Adolescents need to explore all sorts of ideas so that they can figure out who they are in the world. Use the opportunity to understand them better. It will help you both feel closer.

For those closer to the event look out for magical thinking. So often youth feel responsible for bad things happening.  “What if I was there,”  “What if I didn’t do this,” “He would still be here if I’d only”.  This comes from part of brain development that hasn’t completed yet for youth. They often think in ways that are less global and more personal which can lead them to guilting themselves for things that couldn’t possibly be their fault. If you see this in your kid, listen first and then clarify the reality.

7. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Some people will be affected more than others. Some kids/teens will need to talk, some kids/teens won’t. Some will want to attend the memorial, some will not.

Give them the opportunity to talk, grieve and do whatever they need to do but don’t force them to do anything. One mistake parents make is to over-analyze, over-protect and over-process the events. Teens and children need to go back to their regular routine as soon as they are ready. If they are wanting to talk about other things, it is time to move on.

8. It takes time. Adolescents, and children grieve over time, just like the rest of us. You may find that this doesn’t affect them now but it may affect them later. These things come and go over time in unpredictable ways. We often give people a ton of support around the time of an incident but then fade out. There is no time frame or end date.

9. Support your kids in being supportive. If your child is a support for anyone involved help them to be present to their friends. They don’t have to do anything special, just play, hang out and listen. Often teens avoid situations that are intensely emotional. So your kid may struggle to know what to say or do. Help them come up with a plan.

The family just need to know that people care, and that they can just be themselves. They don’t need to be treated with kid gloves, put on a pedestal, or avoided like they have some infectious disease. They have had a horrible thing happen in their life. They deserve to have people walk with them in their grief so they don’t have to do this alone.

10. Give yourself a break. Despite the “rules” I have laid out for you, there is no right way to do this. If you approach your youth with love and compassion then they will learn from this experience about love and compassion. Trust your gut and your relationship with your child. Let that be the most influential guide.

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