When Kids Grieve

How to help your child deal with loss

Our daughter Katie was in first grade when she began throwing temper tantrums. They began just after we moved from Arizona to New York where I had accepted a job.

We sought counsel from a child psychologist. After a brief visit with Katie, the psychologist told us, “Your daughter is grieving over serious losses. She focuses most of her sadness on a kitten that got left behind when your family moved, but she’s also grieving over losing friends and her grandparents. She’s looking for a way to express that sadness.”

The psychologist offered the recommendations listed below:

  • When she starts to act up, don’t isolate her. She hasn’t felt safe to express sadness or anger around you because you send her to her room “until she can behave.”
  • Ask her how she’s feeling. Is she disappointed, sad, angry?
  • Whatever she says, listen and allow her to cry and be angry. She may need to tell you that she’s angry at you for taking her away from her home.
  • After she has expressed her sadness, reaffirm your love for her. She needs to know you still love her even though she experiences negative feelings.

The first time Katie acted up after that visit, it was difficult to hear her cry and tell me she was mad at me. I brought her onto my lap and held her as she sobbed. That interaction resulted in a dramatic change for the better in the way Katie and I related to one another. Since then, my wife and I have worked hard to allow negative feelings to be appropriately expressed by all three of our kids.

Our rule has been, “You can cry and tell us how you feel, but you can’t hurt yourself or someone else or break things.”

Grief takes time and has multiple expressions. Each expression gets easier and takes less time. Our experience shows that when we behave with maturity while our kids grieve like children, they see strength in us and learn to imitate our more controlled behavior.

Katie is now happily married and well-adjusted. She’ll make a great mother someday — one who allows her children to express their feelings.

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