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Helping Your Children Understand the Loss of Someone They Love

Losing someone – a friend or family member – is such a difficult time. It’s also an important time to think about how to talk to your kids. Foremost, be honest and direct (avoid euphemisms) with your children, but–and this is key–pitch whatever you say to the developmental level of your child. The great psychologist Piaget offers us developmental markers to guide us.

Before 7 children think more magically, more imaginatively, and often think they can cause events outside of their control. This age group gets confused or misled most by euphemisms. They can’t think abstractly. Some very young children wonder if they did something to cause a death, simply because they’d wished it during an angry moment or had a fight just before someone died, so make sure they don’t think they caused it. And, offer only as much information as a youngster can handle. Young kids often circle back and ask for more information when they need it or can tolerate it. Otherwise, don’t overload them.

Between 8 and 11 or 12, kids are more sophisticated, but concrete in their thinking. They like to connect things, appreciate how things go together, and start to think about how the bigger world works. They can handle greater complexity, so don’t sell them short. Tell older kids the truth, but it’s a good practice to ask permission – have them tell you when they feel ready to talk. They too can get easily overwhelmed by the strong emotions associated with these tragic events.

Teens possess abstract thinking skills. They can handle more information than younger sibs. They can think more critically, have opinions, and strong beliefs of their own. It’s important to respect their way of understanding things. Tell them you are available to talk when they want. Tell them you’re sad and confused as well. But reassure them that, together, you will all get through this. Know that social relationships are important in the teen years, so they may want to be with friends more than usual. Encourage this and tell them its great to have good people to help them through tough times.

Finally – here are general points that parents should keep in mind:

  • Children are thinkers and they generate lots of questions, and that’s healthy. Encourage it.
  • When parents (and other adults) don’t know the answers to difficult or complex questions, just admit it. We’re all human. It’s ok to be confused. It may take a long time to understand what happened and adjust. Sometimes there are no answers, and that’s ok too.
  • If you’re sad, be sad. Show your sadness, don’t hide it. You need to model the full range of human emotions as normal and healthy. Tell younger kids that you’re upset and sad, and that by crying or being angry, you are going to start feeling better soon.
  • Let everyone work through loss in their own way. In my experience, boys may be less emotional than girls, but not always. Teens may get more angry and irritable. In general, those of us who are more social may reach out to other people for support, but those of us who are more introverted may need time for personal reflection.
  • This isn’t a time to pressure yourself. Don’t worry about being perfect or getting everything right. It’s very human to feel your way through these hard unfamiliar events. Expect mistakes. Learn from them.
  • Finally, take care of yourself. If you’re staying healthy and emotionally supported, you can better help your kids through tough times.




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