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How to Talk to Children about Grief, Loss and Tragedies

Wednesday, November 25, 2015
By Sheila Stinnett, LPC 

Over the last several weeks I have been trying to process the significant number of tragic situations that have occurred in our community and in our world. Multiple reports and pictures of violent crimes, terrorist acts and deadly accidents have become the norm on the news. Unfortunately, as much as I don’t like it, tragedy is a part of everyday life. When it occurs, if it is handled correctly, it provides an opportunity for adults to model appropriate emotional coping strategies for the children around them. 

Research shows when talking with children about tragedy they respond best when the adult speaking with them uses a calm and gentle voice. It is important to encourage the child to ask questions, but understand that it may take a significant amount of time for a child to process the event. It is normal for a child’s questions to come up in conversation days, weeks or months after the event has passed. 

The developmental age of the child will impact how the information will be processed. In young children, it is best to speak with the child on their eye level, using words the child understands while focusing on the basic information and not sharing too many details. Often young children will not understand abstract concepts such as death. It is important when talking with children to use words like “dead” or “died” rather than euphemisms like “passed away” which can confuse them. The most important thing to remember when talking about tragedy with young children is to reassure them that they are safe and protected. 

When talking with older children, be prepared for questions. If you don’t know the answer, it ok to say you don’t know. Upper elementary and middle school students may already have some information via social media; it is important to assist them in processing truth from fiction. 

Older adolescents, will most likely want more detailed information about the event. They may have strong opinions about what happened and want to engage in discussions and actions to prevent the event from occurring again or have a desire to help those impacted by the tragedy. 

With every developmental stage reinforce the idea feelings are normal and need to be experienced and discussed. Help the child identify individuals around them, teachers, counselors, coaches, clergy, who are there to assist them in appropriately dealing with their emotions. If the child has experienced any previous trauma, they may require more support to effectively cope with the current tragedy. 

Maintain a normal routine if at all possible; children in times of crisis need the comfort of structure and normalcy. The only changes in schedule should be child focused. Finding some extra time to spend with your child will help them and you begin the process of healing. Media exposure should be kept at a minimum, repeatedly seeing or hearing events about the tragedy do more harm than good once you have all the facts and can often heighten a child’s anxiety. 

When talking with kids who have been impacted by tragedy it is important to remember that children and adults process grief differently. Often, in children, grief is not displayed through tears or sadness, but through fear, anxiety or anger. Younger children may struggle with separation from a parent and may also demonstrate some regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting or thumb sucking. Anxiety may appear as physical aches and pains, such as headaches or stomach aches. It is not uncommon for children to experience issues with respect for authority, sleep, appetite, maintaining focus in the aftermath of tragedy. Although these are normal reactions, if the child displays these behaviors for more than several weeks or if you have concerns about your child’s reaction, seek the support of a mental health care provider. Edmond Family Counseling is a private, not for profit agency whose mission is to help individuals, couples, families and groups with any mental health need including crisis, counseling, groups and educational programs. Give us a call or visit our website edmondfamily.org. Donations are appreciated!

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