How to help children cope with grief

It’s difficult for adults to make sense of a tragedy or unexpected death, so consider how difficult it can be for children to do the same. Even events that occur far away – or the unexpected death of a celebrity – can trigger a stress response in children. Here are some ways parents can help.

Monitor your child’s news and social media intake and keep their routine and schedule as normal as possible. If your child is prone to anxiety, reassure them of their safety and ensure they are not dwelling on the tragedy.

Honor your child’s connection to the deceased – even if he or she didn’t know them personally. Talk about why this person was important to them, and the qualities and values that made this person feel special to them. Ask what your child wants to do to pay their respects or process the tragedy. This can be as simple as saying a prayer for the individuals left behind or donating to an organization important to the deceased.

Parents should also consider the five E’s of helping a child navigate emotions that come with a traumatic event:

Explore what your child already knows in a gentle and calm manner. You can start with a neutral question inquiring about how their school day was.

Explain what has happened in a way that your child can understand based on their age.

  • Address any misinformation your child might have picked up at school. Help them understand that although a sad and/or scary thing did happen, adults work hard to keep children safe daily.
  • Limit information you provide to your child to the questions they ask you. This will help avoid overwhelming them with information they may not already have been exposed to.
  • Provide examples of ways you and others in your community keep your child safe every day.

Express to your child that feelings are normal, and it is OK to feel sad, mad or angry when a tragic event occurs. Remember to reduce media exposure after a traumatic event, as repeated exposure to the event has been associated with psychological distress and intensifying already heightened emotions.

Emotionally model for your child healthy expression of feelings because children take their cues from their parents. Describe how you cope with your distressing emotions (e.g., “When I feel sad, I talk about it with someone who makes me feel safe or I take three deep breaths.”).

Ensure stability by continuing to adhere to your child’s daily routine. This will provide them with a sense of reassurance and safety during a chaotic time. Engaging in a daily routine is not meant to ignore what has happened, rather to continue to provide the child with structure, stability and predictability.

Additional resources

In the wake of a tragic event, it can be difficult for parents to find the words to talk with children and teens. Below are resources and suggestions for parents on how to discuss difficult topics with their children:

When to get help

Grief and shock are common after a loss or community tragedy. When this lasts longer than two to four weeks and is constant and begins to affect everyday life (schoolwork, interactions with family and friends), then therapy might be appropriate.

If you are struggling to help your child process a traumatic event, or if you feel your child could benefit from additional support, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a pediatric psychologist or psychiatrist.

Below are a few resources in Orange County with expertise in children:

Stay Informed about Mental Health

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How to Help Your Child Navigate the Emotional Aftermath of a Traumatic Event

By Dr. Sheila Modir, pediatric psychology post-doctoral fellow at CHOC Children’s

It’s difficult for adults to make sense of a tragedy, so consider how difficult it can be for children. To help parents support their children as they navigate trauma either in their own lives or process a tragic event they see on the news, consider the five E’s of helping a child navigate the emotional aftermath of a traumatic event: 

  • Explore what your child already knows in a gentle and calm manner. You can start with a neutral question inquiring about how their school day was or if anything happened while they were at school.
  • Explain what has happened in a way that your child can understand based on his/her age.
    • This is the time to address any misinformation your child might have picked up at school and help them understand that a scary thing did happen, but also reassure their sense of safety as schools and adults work hard to keep their children safe on daily basis.
    • Limit information that you provide to your child to the questions that they ask you, so that you avoid overwhelming them with information that they may not already have been exposed to.
    • You can provide examples of ways you and others in your community keep your child safe every day (i.e., how when you drop them off at school in the morning and you look both ways before crossing the road, how doctors are working hard to help the children that have been hurt).
  • Express to your child that feelings are normal and it is okay to feel sad, mad or angry when a tragic event occurs. Remember to reduce media exposure after a traumatic event, as repeated exposure to the event has been associated with psychological distress and intensifying already heightened emotions.
  • Emotionally model for your child healthy expression of feelings as children take their cues from their parents. Describe how you cope with your distressing emotions to your child (i.e., When I feel scared when something bad happens to me, I talk about it with someone who makes me feel safe or I take three deep breaths).
  • Ensure stability by continuing to adhere to your child’s daily routine. This will provide them with a sense of reassurance and safety during a chaotic time. Engaging in a daily routine is not meant to ignore what has happened, rather to continue to provide the child with structure, stability, and predictability.

If you are struggling to help your child process a traumatic event, or if you feel your child could benefit from additional support, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a pediatric psychologist or psychiatrist.

Below are a few additional resources on coping with trauma that I often share with my patients and their families:

Helping Children Survive the Aftermath– Florida International University

Mobile App: PTSD Family Coach– U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Responding to a School Crisis– The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Resources for Parents and Caregivers– The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Helping Traumatized Children: A Brief Overview for Caregivers– Child Trauma Academy

Tragic Events: Parent Resources – The Fred Rogers Company

Learn more about mental health services at CHOC

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Should You Talk to Young Children about Tragic Events?

When it comes to discussing tragedy with young children, honesty might not always be the best policy, a CHOC Children’s psychologist says.

“Shielding them from any exposure should always be the first effort,” Dr. Mery Taylor says. “Children can be unpredictable about how they may respond to information, and even events far away can trigger a stress response.”

Given the potential short- and long-term consequences of coping with a trauma, parents should consider the proximity of the event and whether the child truly must know about specific current events.

But sometimes shielding children from tragic events can be difficult. Dr. Taylor recommends that parents who are considering discussing a tragedy or trauma with a child consider some other factors:

  • Proximity of the event: When a tragedy occurs close to home, it may be more difficult to control what the child might see or hear. And even if unaware, children still might sense tension and anxiety from adults around them.
  • Your partner: Discuss together your concerns and plans to ensure consideration of the different angles, but also so that you both are on the same page and presenting a consistent message. You may want to involve grandparents or caregivers to ensure that your desired approach is followed by those involved in your child’s care.
  • Siblings and older playmates: If your young child is around much older children, consider the likelihood that she may hear something frightening. In these cases, it may be helpful to inoculate her by going ahead and giving her some minimal information while keeping her developmental age in mind. You can always go back and answer more questions as they come. It is not recommended to ask an older child (8 to 12 years old) to not talk about the event with their younger sibling. This would likely only pique their curiosity.
  • Your child’s personality: All children are different. You know your child best. Is she likely to be scared by tragic new more than most children? Or is she the kid who would likely go explain the event to her class? Let her personality help guide your decision.
  • Media: School, other children, television, computers and smartphones may lead to your children knowing more that you think. Be sure to ask about their day; let them know you are there for them; and notice changes in behavior or mood that might be an indication that they may have heard something that doesn’t make sense in their world.

Should parents opt to discuss tragic events with children, or should the child already be aware of the circumstances, Mental Health America offers ways parents can talk to their children about tragedy-related anxiety and help them cope:

Quick tips for parents

  • Children need comforting and frequent reassurance of their safety.
  • Let your child lead the discussion and only answer questions that they ask.
  • Be honest and open about the tragedy or disaster using age-appropriate language. This may take the form of very simple and concise language.
  • Encourage children to express their feelings through talking, drawing or playing.
  • Try to maintain your daily routines as much as possible.
  • Monitor your own anxiety and reactions to the event.

Preschool-aged children

  • Reassure young children that they’re safe. Provide extra comfort and contact by discussing the child’s fears at night, telephoning during the day, and providing extra physical comfort.
  • Get a better understanding of a child’s feelings about the tragedy. Discuss the events with them and find out their fears and concerns. Answer all questions they may ask and provide them loving comfort and care.
  • Structure children’s play so that it remains constructive, serving as an outlet for them to express fear or anger.

Grade school-aged children

  • Answer questions in clear and simple language.
  • False reassurance does not help this age group. Don’t say that tragedies will never happen again; children know this isn’t true. Instead, remind children that tragedies are rare, and say “You’re safe now, and I’ll always try to protect you,” or “Adults are working very hard to make things safe.”
  • Children’s fears often worsen around bedtime, so stay until the child falls asleep so he or she feels protected.
  • Monitor children’s media viewing. Images of the tragedy are extremely frightening to children, so consider significantly limiting the amount of media coverage they see.
  • Allow children to express themselves through play or drawing, and then talk to them about it. This gives you the chance to “retell” the ending of the game or the story they have expressed in pictures with an emphasis on personal safety.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Part of keeping discussion of the tragedy open and honest is not being afraid to say you don’t know how to answer a child’s question. When such an occasion arises, explain to your child that tragedies cause feelings that even adults have trouble dealing with. Temper this by explaining that adults will still always work hard to keep children safe and secure.

  Adolescents

  • Adolescents may try to downplay their worries, so encourage them to work out their concerns about the tragedy.
  • Children with existing emotional problems such as depression may require careful supervision and additional support.
  • Monitor their media exposure to the event and information they receive on the Internet.
  • Adolescents may turn to their friends for support. Encourage friends and families to get together and discuss the event to allay fears.

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Preparing Your Child for an Active Shooter Scenario

Chances are you have taught your children what to do in emergencies, such as fires and earthquakes.  But what about an active shooter scenario?  According to Deputy Mike Perez, SWAT Team Leader in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, parents should teach their children, particularly older kids who may not always be supervised, what to do if they are faced with an active shooter.  While details will vary based on a child’s developmental age, parents need to be honest and consider the basic premise of Run, Hide, Fight, says Perez.

OCSD

Run
Teach children to do anything they can to quickly get away from the situation.  Leave belongings behind.  Families should agree on a word that promptly gains the attention of children, who should drop whatever they are doing and follow mom and dad. Perez encourages parents of teens to talk to them about ignoring any tendencies to explore loud noises or disturbances.  “In today’s world of camera phones, teens tend to gravitate to situations they think make for great video footage or social media fodder, when they should really be removing themselves from any potential harm,” explains Perez.

Hide

If children are unable to run away, the next best option is to hide. If possible, take extra precautions to create the appearance of a deserted area by turning off lights or closing blinds. Lock doors and create barricades.  If there’s no hiding place, stay as low to the ground as possible and remain still.

Turn cell phones on silent and turn down the screen brightness. Even a vibration could give away a hiding place. Leaving the phone on allows the user to communicate to law enforcement, if it’s safe to do so.

Fight:

As a last resort— and only if in imminent danger— individuals who are physically able to should attempt to disrupt or incapacitate the shooter, says Perez.

Other tips for parents:

Be aware of the emergency plan at your child’s school, and make sure your child knows what to do. For safety reasons, administrators may not be able to provide all details of the plan, but should be able to provide you with enough to feel confident. Ask local law enforcement if the school’s plan coincides with what they recommend.

Kids and teens should be aware of their surroundings at all times, and notice if anything stands out. If something looks suspicious or just doesn’t feel right, they should alert a trusted teacher or adult.

Teach children to always look for the nearest exits.  Knowing this information for frequently visited locations may actually reduce fear and anxiety when emergencies arise, shares Perez.

No matter their location, tell kids to remember that help will be on the way.

For more information, watch a short video by the Department of Homeland Security.

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Helping Children Cope with Tragedy

It’s hard for grownups to make sense of a tragedy, so consider how difficult it must be for children.

Depending on their age and media exposure, children may know more than grownups think. And even if unaware, children still might sense tension and anxiety from adults around them.

Mental Health America has offered these ways that parents can help their children cope with tragedy-related anxiety:Dad comforting child

Quick tips for parents

  • Children need comforting and frequent reassurance of their safety.
  • Be honest and open about the tragedy or disaster.
  • Encourage children to express their feelings through talking, drawing or playing.
  • Try to maintain your daily routines as much as possible.

Preschool-aged children

  • Reassure young children that they’re safe. Provide extra comfort and contact by discussing the child’s fears at night, telephoning during the day, and providing extra physical comfort.
  • Get a better understanding of a child’s feelings about the tragedy. Discuss the events with them and find out their fears and concerns. Answer all questions they may ask and provide them loving comfort and care.
  • Structure children’s play so that it remains constructive, serving as an outlet for them to express fear or anger.

Grade school-aged children

  • Answer questions in clear and simple language.
  • False reassurance does not help this age group. Don’t say that tragedies will never happen again; children know this isn’t true. Instead, remind children that tragedies are rare, and say “You’re safe now, and I’ll always try to protect you,” or “Adults are working very hard to make things safe.”
  • Children’s fears often worsen around bedtime, so stay until the child falls asleep so he or she feels protected.
  • Monitor children’s media viewing. Images of the tragedy are extremely frightening to children, so consider limiting the amount of media coverage they see.
  • Allow children to express themselves through play or drawing, and then talk to them about it. This gives you the chance to “retell” the ending of the game or the story they have expressed in pictures with an emphasis on personal safety.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Part of keeping discussion of the tragedy open and honest is not being afraid to say you don’t know how to answer a child’s question. When such an occasion arises, explain to your child that tragedies cause feelings that even adults have trouble dealing with. Temper this by explaining that adults will still always work hard to keep children safe and secure.

MomComfortGirl  Adolescents

  •  Adolescents may try to downplay their worries, so encourage them to work out their concerns about the tragedy.
  • Children with existing emotional problems such as depression may require careful supervision and additional support.
  • Monitor their media exposure to the event and information they receive on the Internet.
  • Adolescents may turn to their friends for support. Encourage friends and families to get together and discuss the event to allay fears.

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