It Is OK to Cry: When Children Grieve

Published on: January 12, 2017

It’s hard for parents to recognize how and when our children grieve and how to help. By Johanna De Konig   As parents, we often want to protect our children from sorrow, which is not always possible. In fact, sometimes we parents do not realize that our children mourn and are sad about things we ourselves would not consider a big deal. A child’s age and the fact that each child responds differently to loss makes it difficult for grown-ups to support a child. In order to mourn, children have to:
  • realize the loss and accept the new reality
  • understand their sadness as well as feelings of pain and loss
  • come to terms with these feelings and accept that life will be different
  • rebuild and enjoy their life once again.
Naturally, all of this is takes time, and it is likely to come and go in waves — not very different from what adults go through themselves. 

How children express grief

Children often express their grief in several ways. Some show anger and feelings of guilt and fear that often manifest in behavior patterns of tantrums and disobedience.
The way to help children mourn is by being there for them.
They may also start exhibiting sleep problems, bed-wetting, mood swings or even distance themselves from those around them. Some children even go through physical changes while others have absolutely no expression of the loss. 

How to help grieving children

The way to help children mourn is by being there for them. Rather than avoiding the uncomfortable and painful topic, address it sympathetically.
  • Talk about the person they have ‘lost’ (or if it was a pet, the pet’s name) and relive the memories.
  • In general, children tend to be more open and willing to talk during play or while distracted by another activity such as drawing, doodling or coloring. 
It is important to involve a child in the grieving process by sharing what we feel and asking how they feel. Parents may not want to talk about it because they want to protect their children, but it is better to be open about it. When you grieve yourself or are sad, you can let your child know. When you dare to show your feelings it gives the child permission to also have feelings of sadness and pain.  Be attentive to the signals your child gives you. Every child mourns in his or her own way — depending on age, culture, family background and how others around them are dealing with the loss. It is not unusual for children to delay their mourning until they feel it is safe to express themselves or claim attention. Some children avoid facing their deep feelings while others adopt the role of caretaker. For children who have difficulty expressing their feelings, using art and drawing as a form of expression may be helpful and allows them to release their emotions.  If you notice your child cannot move on and it worries you, connect with a counselor so you can share your concerns, get a professional perspective and learn specific tools to be able to deal with the loss.

Further Reading

Photo via Pixabay.

About the Author

Johanna is a counselor with over 30 years of experience in counseling and therapy. A family therapist and Sand-tray and Clay therapist, she has helped adults and children with mental health issues, anxiety, depression, and bipolarity, etc., and worked 4 years as a Mental Health Trainer and Supervisor in a Thai refugee camp. Johanna is Clinical Supervisor at New Counseling Service (NCS), Bangkok. She speaks Dutch and English, as well as Thai.
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