How Do Children React to Trauma?

Here our grief experts respond to several of the most frequently asked questions about grieving in the presence of children.

  • What should I tell my child about what has happened?

Many adults are concerned that they might frighten their child if they tell him/her what has really happened. However, in many cases the ideas a child has about the events are even more frightening than what actually happened. Therefore it is important to tell the child the true facts related to the event. You can decide how much detail is appropriate to share with your child, but make sure that what you tell him/her is true. You may not have answers for all of the questions that come up, but often just airing the question is a big relief for the child. If there is a question that you are not sure how to answer, you can always tell your child that you need time to think about it. Make sure you get back to your child with an answer within a reasonable period of time.

  • What should I say happens after death?

The answer to this question cannot be found in books, but rather must come from deep down inside each individual. Share your personal thoughts with your child and stress that he/she may form his/her own ideas. If you think that telling a child about the hereafter or paradise will make it easier on the child, then use that explanation and avoid explanations that stress the finality of the person’s existence.

  • Should children attend funerals?

It really depends on the age of the child, circumstances of death and the relationship between the child and the deceased. Try and let the child take part in the decision. Tell him/her what happens at a funeral; what he/she can expect, both practically and emotionally, and decide together if he/she should go. A funeral can be a very emotionally upsetting experience on the one hand, but on the other, being left alone, behind, can evoke the same or more difficult feelings. Forcibly leaving the child behind can leave him/her with the impression that death is such a terrible thing that it can’t be coped with. In any event, do not pressure your child one way or another to do something against his/her will. If the child is planning to attend, arrange for someone with whom he/she is close to stay by his side and keep an eye on him/her. This person will be able to help him/her understand what is going on.

  • How can I explain how life will be from now on?

Prepare the child for life after the loss: ask him/her what he/she thinks will happen and encourage him/her to ask questions. Answer honestly and if you have no answers — say so. Children, especially young ones, usually have little concept of death so it is important to understand their thoughts and concerns. Often, some of the ideas they come up with may be more frightening than reality. In order to make your explanations more tangible and realistic, make use of dolls, illustrations, and stories especially geared to children. Reassure them over and over again that they are safe, and find out what they need to make them feel better.

  • Should I let my child see me crying?

A resounding yes!
When you demonstrate your sadness and cry in front of your child you confirm that these emotions are legitimate and will make it a lot easier for him/her to share their feelings with you. It is important to explain why you are upset and to make sure your child understands it is not his/her fault. If you feel that the issues are beyond your child’s grasp, try to adapt an explanation that you can use in terms he/she will understand.

  • Should I let my child stay up late?

As difficult as it may be, try and stick to the daily routine you had before the event, such as a regular bedtime, school attendance, and participation in extra-curricular activities. This routine will give the child a sense of order and security during a very confusing time. Of course, as with any routine, a certain amount of flexibility may be in order as well. Use your judgment in deciding when that flexibility is needed.

  • Should my child’s teachers at school or daycare be informed of what happened?

Most definitely! The child’s kindergarten teacher, homeroom teacher, or school guidance counselor should be told what has happened. By sharing your loss with the significant others in your child’s environment, they can be more sensitive to your child at this difficult time, and allow both appropriate discussion and displays of comforting behavior on the part of your child’s classmates. Your child’s teachers and caretakers can also be on the lookout for any distress signals or problems the child may display and let you know if something comes up.

  • How will I be able to tell if my child needs professional help?

During the first few weeks and months after the loss your child is liable to exhibit behavior that is uncharacteristic of him/her. He/she may cry, withdraw from his/her surroundings, start wetting the bed, distance him/herself from friends, or fall behind in schoolwork. Most children manage to return to normal functioning within several months without professional help. However, if you see that your child is having trouble in his/her basic day-to-day functioning or that he/she is distraught and despondent and unable to handle the load, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. One good referral source might be the school guidance counselor who can refer you on to an appropriate professional.