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Lena Engel
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Worked as an Ofsted Early Years Inspector for Kensington and Chelsea Borough. Supported teachers in schools to improve outcomes for children’s learning, and written for Nursery World Magazine. She trains, assesses and mentors early years practitioners, and offers advice and guidance to parents.
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Child Mental Health & Wellbeing

Helping your child to deal with bereavement and grief

Bereavement is a deeply upsetting and potentially traumatic life event that can happen to children of all ages. Parents often feel poorly equipped to help their child deal with such a loss. Child bereavement and positive parenting specialists offer a range of guidance on how to support your child during a death in the family or community.
In Short
Positive Parenting techniques enable parents to consider how they can approach all aspects of caring for their children, and take steps when problems occur to continue to promote children's resilience, health, and well-being.

The effect of a member of the family or a friend dying can be a very difficult experience for most children whether they are three, eight, twelve or eighteen. There are a number of practical steps that parents can consider taking to help prepare their children for episodes of bereavement. This includes:

  • For young children read stories that teach them about the cycle of life and investigate the effect of the weather and the seasons on natural life. If children understand that in their environment they can observe, examine and understand how animals and plants change, it helps them comprehend the basics about the life cycle of people.
  • It is also important to read stories that deal with all generations of family members – babies, children, parents, and grandparents. These stories help children identify characters in the story with their own family members and can initiate discussion about feelings and the timeline of life.
  • Parents should ensure that they begin building empathy in children from 3 to 5 years, as they can understand at this age that they should be mindful of the feelings of others and that their behaviour has an impact on others. So for instance, they can show concern when their parents are unwell, or tired, and they can show sadness or regret if they hurt their brothers or sisters, or their friends.
  • Children will not be able to express their feelings unless they have the role models of their parents using a language and a vocabulary that they can copy. This is why reading stories about families in which a senior member dies, a grandma or grandpa, for instance, will help children pick up the words they need to communicate what they feel.
  • Also talking about real life experiences of animals getting unwell and/or dying prompts children to think about what they learn as well as use the terminology to express their understanding of it.
  • If parents need specific examples of words to use to explain death to children, it will depend on the maturity and understanding of the child. A four-year-old will sense the unhappiness that bereavement is having on his or her parents and this may have an emotional outcome on him/her. Parents are wise to discuss how they are feeling and why. Always speak in terms that a child will comprehend. Offer the discussion as a conversation so that children have time to listen and respond, to take part in the communication and make sense of what is going on with their parents.
  • Older children can become more inward looking and difficult to support. The experience of bereavement can depress children and lead them to behave in ways that test the patients of adults and their parents. Be patient and listen as much as possible. Think about what the children are trying to say to you and give them the chance to have space and not to respond emotionally just because you think they should.
  • It may be useful to suggest that they have a thought box in which they can post through the lid messages that they write to express their feelings. They may want to share them with you, their parents, or keep them private. They could keep the box in their rooms. The idea to emphasise with them is that the box can hold the thoughts so that they do not have to hold them in their head.
  • If you can maintain as much of a normal routine as possible children will adapt to the experience of bereavement more easily. It is important to adults remain the adults in the relationship with their children and that they do not impose additional responsibilities on to their children.

If you would like to contact Lena for one-on-one advice for children aged 0 – 19 years, please email her on Lenahelpsparents@gmail.com.

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DISCLAIMER
This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.