Helping children deal with trauma and grief

Children experience trauma and grief differently than adults. Try not to assume that your child is experiencing what you, as an adult, are experiencing.

Many parents 'have a talk' with their child about the traumatic incident. Although talking with your child is important, it's more important to listen to your child so you know what they're experiencing.

Try asking your child these questions, and listen carefully to their responses. You may find that your child has been impacted by the trauma in ways you did not expect.

Ask your child:

  • What worries you the most now?
  • What upsets you the most now?
  • What is the worst part or the hardest part for you now?
  • What helps you feel a little better?
  • What helps you feel a little safer?
  • Do you have any questions about what happened or anything anyone has said?

What Can You Do?

  • Reassure your child that they are safe.
  • Listen.
  • Maintain routines.
  • Turn off the TV, or only watch shows that aren't covering the incident. Some adolescents or older children may need to watch because, like adults, they have a need to know. But try to keep it to a minimum, and be sure to discuss what they saw and heard. Ask questions and listen carefully to responses and opinions.
  • Allow your child to be sad or afraid. Reassure them that you will be there to take care of them. Tell them that the sadness, hurt or fear they feel will change in time.
  • Encourage your child to exercise some sense of control over the next few days by letting them make decisions about what they eat, wear, etc.
  • Spend time together; really together, not you in one part of the house while your child is in another part of the house.
  • Encourage your child to engage in physical activities or other activities that help them feel better.
  • When needed, separate fact from fiction. Fiction tends to escalate fears.
  • Do not speculate or exaggerate.

Do's and Don'ts

DO ... feel comfortable asking for help from counsellors and mental health supports provided through the school or community.

DO ... develop an environment where children feel safe to ask questions and are confident of receiving honest answers.

DO ... use correct terminology to provide information and reassurances.

DO ... listen and empathize. Make sure you hear what is said, not what they think your child ought to have said.

DO ... allow the students to express as much grief as they are able or willing to share with you.

DO ... share your own feelings.

DO ... say "I don't know" when you don't know.

DO ... maintain a sympathetic attitude toward age-appropriate responses from your child.

DON'T ... force your child to participate in a discussion about death.

DON'T ... be judgmental; don't lecture.

DON'T ... force a 'regular day' on a grieving child, but at the same time, don't allow their day to be totally unstructured. Offer choices of activities like journals, discussion, physical activity, etc.

DON'T ... say "I know how you feel" unless you truly do.

DON'T ... force others to look for something positive in the situation.

DON'T ... feel you have to handle this alone. Ask for help.

DON'T ... expect adult responses from children and teenagers. Their responses to grief may seem inappropriate to you.

Sources: Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board
Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD

Dealing with loss and grief

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