Helping Children Understand the Loss of a Loved One

Children need to have a chance for a forthright discussion—in their own time and in terms they understand
July 30, 2020 Updated: July 30, 2020

Losing someone—a friend or family member—is a difficult time in our lives. It’s also an important time to think about how to talk to your kids. There are some important things you should be mindful of as you navigate this discussion.

Foremost, be honest and direct (avoid euphemisms) with your children. It is critical you adapt whatever you say to the developmental level of your child. Psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) offers developmental markers to guide us.

Before 7 years old, children think more magically, more imaginatively, and often think they can cause events outside of their control. This age group gets confused or misled most by euphemisms. They can’t think abstractly. Some very young children wonder if they did something to cause death, simply because they’d wished it during an angry moment or had a fight just before someone died, so make sure they don’t think they caused it. And, offer only as much information as a youngster can handle. Young kids often circle back and ask for more information when they need it or can tolerate it. Otherwise, don’t overload them.

Between 8 and 11 or 12  kids are more sophisticated, but concrete in their thinking. They like to connect things, appreciate how things go together, and start to think about how the bigger world works. They can handle greater complexity, so don’t sell them short. Tell older kids the truth, but it’s a good practice to ask permission—have them tell you when they feel ready to talk. They too can get easily overwhelmed by the strong emotions associated with these tragic events.

Teens possess abstract thinking skills. They can handle more information than younger siblings. They can think more critically and have opinions as well as strong beliefs of their own. It’s important to respect their way of understanding things. Tell them you are available to talk when they want. Tell them you’re sad and confused as well. But reassure them that, together, you will all get through this. Know those social relationships are important in the teen years, so they may want to be with friends more than usual. Encourage this and tell them its great to have good people to help them through tough times.

General Advice

Finally—here are general points that parents should keep in mind:

  • Children are thinkers and they generate lots of questions. That’s healthy—encourage it.
  • When parents (and other adults) don’t know the answers to difficult or complex questions, they should just admit it. We’re all human. It’s normal to be confused. It may take a long time to understand what happened and adjust. Sometimes there are no answers, and that’s normal too.
  • If you’re sad, be sad. Show your sadness, don’t hide it. You need to model the full range of human emotions as normal and healthy. Tell younger kids that you’re upset and sad and that by crying or being angry, you are going to start feeling better soon.
  • Let everyone work through loss in their own way. In my experience, boys may be less emotional than girls, but not always. Teens may get more angry and irritable. In general, those of us who are more social may reach out to other people for support, but those of us who are more introverted may need time for personal reflection.
  • This isn’t a time to pressure yourself. Don’t worry about being perfect or getting everything right. It’s very human to feel your way through these hard unfamiliar events. Expect mistakes. Learn from them.
  • Finally, take care of yourself. If you’re staying healthy and emotionally supported, you can better help your kids through tough times.

Anthony Rao is a nationally-known child psychologist. For more than 20 years, he was a psychologist at Boston’s Children’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. He is the co-author of “The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions & Create a Life on Your Own Terms.”