Do’s and Don’ts for Talking to Your Child about Grief

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Do: Identify, validate, and normalize the feeling. Ask open questions. 

Children’s behaviors are a window into how they’re feeling; they often use their actions to communicate when they don’t yet have the skills to do so verbally. When you notice your child might be feeling sad, angry, or disappointed, name it and open the door for a conversation. Try saying, “It seems like you’re feeling sad… Could we talk about that?” or “I noticed you slammed the door, and I’m wondering if you’re angry about something.” When they begin to share, remember that it’s not your job to take away a bad feeling but rather connect with them about it. Validate their emotions by saying things like, “I can understand why you’re feeling that way,” or “That makes sense to me.” 

Don’t: Compete with or correct the feeling. 

Have you ever shared something hard with a friend, only to be met with an eager, “Oh wow, me too! One time, I…”? Our intention is to connect with someone — to let them know we’ve been there and know what it’s like, but instead, we land in some sort of competition about whose experience was worse. A group of students came to me a few months back to talk about the “girl drama” in their friend group. Without thinking, I said, “I get it — when I was in 5th grade, I went through the same things with my friends. It’ll get better! And until then, just ignore it.” They looked at me blankly. Hello, empathy miss! Not only did I shift the focus away from their hurt, I invalidated their experience by failing to acknowledge how big these problems felt to them.

Neuroscience teaches us that when we are overwhelmed with emotions, we can’t access our prefrontal cortex — the higher-level thinking part of our brain that helps us make decisions, solve problems, and learn. We need to first recognize what’s going on in the emotion part of the brain, our amygdala. If your child says something like, “I’m so mad at Anna for cancelling camp,” you might be tempted to correct them because, as adults, we can understand the necessity of this decision while also feeling sad about it. Our campers may not be able to hold all of that into consideration yet (and developmentally, we wouldn’t expect them to). There may come a time when you can talk with your child about how this decision was made, but when they’re “in their feelings,” as they’d say, the best thing to do is to meet them there.

Do: Slow down and take deep breaths.

This is an unfamiliar and uncomfortable experience for us all; this is our first global pandemic, the first time camp and so many other things aren’t happening as planned — there’s no roadmap for this. For the first time, we are supporting others through a crisis that we are also living through, and that’s really hard. As adults, it’s our job to be steady when kids fall apart, and that might feel pretty impossible right now. We can accomplish a lot by modeling regulation skills for children — slowing down, taking a deep breath, and even pushing pause on a hard conversation. Pay attention to your emotions while talking with your child. If it starts to feel too hard, or like you can’t think clearly, it’s okay to say, “I really want to talk about this with you, and right now I’m feeling really ______. I think we could have a better conversation if I can take a break for a few minutes to calm down.” 

Don’t: Point out the bright side. 

Nothing feels worse than when someone tries to “silver line” something hard. There’s a place for optimism, but much like our problem-solving skills, we can’t get there until we’ve gotten close to the hurt that we’re feeling first. Parents are hard-wired with a protective instinct to prevent their child from pain; that’s what kicks in and tempts us to say things like, “There’s always next summer,” or, “At least now we’ll be able to spend more time together!”. These responses put up a wall between us and the people we love, and it can send a message that we don’t understand their sadness because we’re so focused on those silver linings. 

Do: Keep trying if you get it wrong.  

We all will have our moments of empathy misses — we’ll find ourselves in one of these traps where our well-intended responses fall short and we fail to connect with the person in front of us. When I realized what happened with those students, I came back to them and said, “I think I missed what you were trying to tell me earlier; I’m sorry about that. Can you try to explain it again?” Expect to miss sometimes; give yourself some grace to try again.

Becci spent sixteen summers at Jacobs Camp as a camper, staff member, and Assistant Director. She received her Masters in Social Work from the University of Denver and now works as an elementary school Social Emotional Learning Specialist where she partners with teachers, families, and school leaders to foster an educational environment where all students can thrive.