Back to School: How to Help Grieving Children

August 22, 2022
For some families, heading back to school is a fun and exciting experience, while others may feel intense overwhelm or even dread—especially families who are experiencing deep grief. There may be several benefits for grieving children to return to the classroom, however there may be an increase in separation anxiety and acts of regression. Here's what you should look for in your grieving student, and ways you can better support them.
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Written by Brittany Whallen, Licensed Professional Counselor and Marriage and Family Therapist

The time of year is upon us once again – “Back to School!” For some families, this is a fun and exciting experience.  For others, they may feel intense overwhelm or even dread.  This can be especially true for families who are experiencing deep grief from the loss of a family member or close friend.

There may be several benefits for grieving children to return to the classroom – seeing friends, teachers, having a more consistent daily routine, time to play, etc.  However, depending on the child’s age and temperament, there may be an increase in separation anxiety and acts of regression or “clinginess.” For older children, there may be worry about trying to fit in and not wanting anyone else to know about the grief they’re experiencing in their personal life and at home.

Here are some tips for families who are experiencing grief and bereavement as the school year begins:

For Elementary Aged Children
  • Provide lots of comfort. Hugs, physical, and verbal reassurances may sometimes be more powerful than words. Your children may seek this reassurance over and over again for quite some time.
  • Emphasize safety. Reassure children frequently they will be cared for and not be left behind. Discuss with your children the many measures that you take on a daily basis to stay healthy and safe (such a going to the doctor when sick, wearing your seatbelt in the car, looking both ways before you cross the street, etc.) After a family member dies, children often think “Who’s next?”  This fear can run wild with their strong sense of imagination.
  • Answer the questions asked. Children at this age do not necessarily require a ton of information about the death.  They will ask what they want to know.  Try to answer questions honestly but without offering too much detail in your responses.  If a child has questions, he/she/they will ask. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it is perfectly okay to say so.
  • Keep daily routines as consistent as possible. Knowing what to expect each day can be very helpful to young children in a grieving environment. To the best of your ability, try to let them know who will be making them breakfast, tying their shoes, dropping them off and picking them up from school, etc. These little bits of practical information help them feel a sense of control, which is often much needed and provides comfort.
  • Grief may look like hyperactivity. For children these ages, their grief at home or in the classroom may look a bit more like restlessness, high energy, difficulty focusing and following instructions, or “goofing off.” Most people think that grieving children may appear withdrawn and quiet, and that their sadness shines through.  While this may be the case for some children, most actually experience more of an anxious style of behavior, which can look a lot like being hyperactive and non-focused.
  • Monitor changes in daily habits, such as eating, sleeping, playing, etc. This is one of the primary ways to help discern how your child is coping with the loss, and to be able to intervene with professional help and treatment if necessary.
  • Be available to talk, but do not demand it. Children in this age group will express a lot of their emotions through play.  They have not fully developed the language to be able to express themselves verbally, especially when it comes to complicated emotions. So inviting your children to talk to you when they’d like to is a helpful way to reassure them that you’re there, but still honor and trust their “window” of time that they can process those more complex emotions.

For Middle School Aged Children
  • Provide comfort and reassurance. Just like younger children, hugs, as well as physical and verbal reassurance can still be quite helpful if the child is receptive to it. This may be easier to provide within one’s home than in a public setting.
  • Recognize the importance of peers. Children in this age range are often very preoccupied with peers and trying to fit in with others. A significant loss is often something that not many of their friends may have experienced and can feel either embarrassing or isolating to the child.  Try not to be alarmed if your child doesn’t mention the death to their peers or wishes not to discuss it with them. This does not mean they won’t process their grief, but rather that they desire the control of who knows what about them.
  • Identify your child’s unique grief needs. Some family members may have the strong need to often talk about the person who has died, and how this is impacting them. Others may avoid this type of conversation most of the time. It’s okay for different people in the family to have different needs.  If your child can state what they generally prefer, this can be a step towards helping everyone in the family get a bit of what they are needing.
  • Monitor changes in daily habits, such as eating, sleeping, socializing, etc. Just like with younger children, if your child is exhibiting significant behavioral differences in these types of daily tasks, this may be an indication that a higher level of support is needed, especially if the child is not able to function well as a result.
  • Normalize the wide range of emotions. Children at this age often experience heightened emotion to begin with.  When they are grieving, these emotions may seem even more intense and “out of nowhere.” Offer reassurance to your child that all their feelings are normal and that you’re available to talk and help them learn to cope with these feelings as they come up.
  • Grief may look like distraction and anxiety. For this age range, children in the classroom may have a more difficult time focusing for longer periods of time, or feeling easily overwhelmed with timeframes and academic pressure. Look for any changes or struggles your child may be facing, and incorporate help from teachers and/or counselors when needed.
  • Be available to talk, but do not lecture. Your child may be open to having some intimate or contemplative conversations about their grief with you, but likely still in smaller doses and on their own agenda. Having conversations in the car can often be a helpful way to invite discussion but avoid some of the pressures that can be created from trying to have a “sit down” conversation with a pre-teen. Try to do more reflective listening than offering advice during these talks.

For High School Aged Children
  • Provide comfort and reassurance. Just like younger children, hugs, as well as physical and verbal reassurance can still be quite helpful if the child is receptive to it. This may be easier to provide within one’s home than in a public setting.
  • Your child will likely prefer to process their feelings with friends/peers. Similarly to middle school aged children, teens generally prefer to talk with their peers about their feelings and experiences. They may or may not choose to try to hide some of their grief from others. Try to honor your child’s way of coping, while also making sure that the child has access to adults who they feel they can turn to with these feelings as well.
  • Monitor changes in your child’s overall behaviors. This can include the basic things such as eating and sleeping habits, but especially be on the lookout for strong personality shifts or disruptions in typical behavior. This can often be difficult to figure out what is typical teenage behavior versus a reaction related more specifically to grief. If you’re worried about your child, it can be helpful to talk to a mental health professional for more guidance.
  • With increased independence also comes loss. While children at this age typically yearn for more and more independence, it is important to recognize that the more life experiences and exposure your child has, the larger the array of complications and distresses they will face. This loss of innocence that forms over time can often feel overwhelming, and even trigger feelings of grief.
  • Grief may encompass a wide variety of feelings and behaviors. Extreme mood shifts and difficulty regulating emotions are typically part of some teenage years.  However, these can be enhanced even more during grief. Ask how your child is coping with all that’s going on in their life, not just the grief.
  • Grief may look like anxiety and/or resistance. Grieving teens may have difficulty focusing, paying attention, getting motivation to complete school tasks and/or chores at home, and asking for help. Normalizing these reactions for grieving children may encourage them to ask for or receive help with these tasks when it is needed. Teachers and/or school counselors can also be paramount in addressing these concerns.
  • Be available to talk, but do not lecture. Just like with middle school aged children, it is important to be available to have more serious or contemplative discussions with your teen. But it’s essential to invite conversation, not to insist or try to provoke it. If your teen believes you are starting to “lecture” them, this is a guaranteed way that the child will shut down. Try active listening without judgment – ask open ended questions to help engage the child in conversation.

One of the best gifts we can offer our children is to not be afraid of their pain. This often means that we have our own work to do in regard to our own pain. Children are very intuitive, and tend to know when we’re not being authentic with them. Just remember, you can help set the tone of how you talk about grief and loss with your children. If you’re not afraid to talk about it, chances are they will not be afraid to either. And offer yourself a lot of compassion and support for your own grief. It’s incredibly difficult to be fully present and available to your children when you are grieving as well. It won’t be done perfectly, nor does it need to be. There is support out there for you too!

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