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~ How to Talk with Children ~

Talking with children about loss, grief, death and dying, knowing what to say or how to say it can be a very daunting task, but a very important one. The following lists suggestions on how to talk with children and help them in their grieving process:

  • Listen to and take your cues from the child. Find out what they know or what they are aware of happening. Don't assume they are afraid. Conversely, don't assume that they are unaware of what has happened.
  • Pay attention to when children want to talk or have questions. Make sure they know you are available if they want to ask questions.
  • Answer their questions directly. Give honest, simple, brief answers to their questions, but don't give them more information than they ask for or that they need. Consider answering on a "need to know" basis.
  • If the child keeps asking the same question over and over again it is because he/she is trying to understand and make sense out of the disruption and confusion in their world. They should be allowed to discuss their own theories about what happened in order for them to reassert control over their environment and understand the trauma.
  • Younger children do not understand that death is permanent, so their repeated inquiries are because they expect everything to return to normal.
  • For those old enough to understand the issues of death should be addressed. They can be told that death is permanent and sad. The grieving process should be acknowledged and shared.
  • Make sure they understand your answers and the meaning you intend.
  • Use words or phrases that won't confuse a child or make the world more frightening.
  • Acknowledge the child's fear. Reassure him/her.
  • Take their fears seriously. Even though they might seem exaggerated by adult standards, don't try to talk them out of what they are feeling or thinking.
  • Talk to them calmly. Keep your emotions in check. Parental despair can interfere with a child's ability to recover.
  • If you are feeling so upset you don't want to talk, provide your child with an honest explanation. You may want to take "time out" and ask another family member or trusted family friend to help.
  • Be especially loving and supportive. Provide physical reassurance with lots of hugging, cuddling and touching.
  • Gauge their media exposure according to their age. Babies, toddlers and preschoolers should be shielded from media reports as much as possible. Limit exposure for school age children. Be sure you watch with them.
  • Even if you feel the world is an unsafe place, you can reassure your child by saying, "The event is over. Now we'll do everything possible to stay safe. Together we can help get things back to normal."
  • Reaffirm the future and talk in "hopeful" terms about future events. A hopeful outlook can help a child rebuild trust and faith in his own future and the world.
  • Tell children of other national tragedies that have happened in the past--the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion. Explain to them that life goes on. Emphasize that the United States has overcome these tragedies in the past and will overcome this tragedy.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Fast Fact # 8. Children and Grief. Updated November 1998. Available at: Site.
National Mental Health Association. Helping Children Cope With Loss. 2001. Available at: Site.
Doka KJ, ed. Living with Grief: Children, Adolescents, and Loss. Washington D.C.: Hospice Foundation of America, 2000.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Fast Fact # 36. Helping Children After a Disaster. Updated March 2000. Available at: Site.
National Institute of Mental Health. Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters. Available at: Site.

Children will look to you
For which way to turn
To learn how to be.

Steven Sondheim
See the Emergency 911 Page for links to immediate resources
if you are feeling helpless, hopeless, overwhelmingly depressed, or suicidal.

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Last update Sept. 11, 2002