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Supporting children and young people through grief

Based on international statistics, an estimated 1 in 20 tamariki / children will experience a bereavement by the time they’re 16 years old. The impacts of grief are both immediate and life-long. Read on for some tips to help you support children and young people through grief.

Without the right support at the right time, tamariki / children can experience a range of negative impacts. This is especially true because tamariki / children and mātātahi / young people are often left to grieve alone as mātua / parents and caregivers and extended whānau members struggle to cope too.

Feelings of isolation and loneliness can create social, behavioural and academic problems that can last into adulthood.

While your whānau has its own culture and traditions that may guide and comfort you following a death, here’s how you can support your tamariki / children to accept their grief with tips that will help now and in the future.

An overview of tamariki / children and mātātahi / young people and grief

The death of a loved one affects everyone in the whānau, and everyone will express their grief differently. Tamariki / children will react in different ways to news of the death. Some may be visibly distraught; others may go out and play as if nothing has happened. This behaviour can be misinterpreted as ‘they don’t care’ or ‘they don’t fully understand what has happened’ but a child’s reaction to difficult news, and their ensuing grief, can be influenced by a few things, especially their age. Even babies and toddlers are affected by the grief they feel around them. They can sense that someone is missing, and things have changed.

Giving your taitamaiti / child age-appropriate information in a way that they can relate to will help them gain some understanding of death, dying, and grief. Conversations with your tamariki / children about death, dying, illness and loss are ongoing because they will keep asking questions and sometimes ask the same question more than once.

As mātua / parents and caregivers, grieving openly in front of our tamariki / children will help them understand that grief is a natural, normal response and nothing to be ashamed of. Allow tamariki / children to express their grief in ways that are natural for them. Keep in mind young tamariki / children can be overwhelmed by too much emotion. Most tamariki / children find it hard to see their mātua / parents and caregivers cry.

How a taitamaiti / child grieves depends on a range of things, like:

  • Their age, gender and stage of development.
  • Their personality.
  • Whether they’ve experienced grief / loss before.
  • The type of support available to them and who is providing it.
  • Their relationship to the person who died.
  • The grief of others around them.

Supporting babies and toddlers (0-5 years)

Babies and toddlers don’t understand the concept of death. But they can respond to a change in their environment and will experience feelings of loss, abandonment and insecurity if a significant person is missing. They don’t have language to express how they are feeling and will pick up on the distress that is around them. Their behaviour can be an expression of how they’re feeling. Your baby or toddler may be ‘clingier’ than usual, fretful and crying more, and their sleep and feeding habits might change or be disturbed.

What you can do:

  • Maintain routines and daily structure as best you can, including having them stay as close as possible to their user caregivers.
  • Comfort, hold, speak calmly and gently.

Supporting toddlers (3-5 years)

Tamariki / children aged 3-5 years may think their loved one will return (also known as ‘magical thinking’) because they find it hard to understand that death is permanent. They need reassurance that they will be safe and cared for. A toddler’s response to grief may manifest as irritability or tantrums or being fearful and clingy. Sometimes the opposite may happen, where your taitamaiti / child withdraws, doesn’t play as much as usual and may even start look for the person who has died, thinking they will be coming back.

What you can do:

  • Maintain routines and daily structure as best you can.
  • Reassure, hug, comfort.
  • Explain death in ways they can understand - there are some great books available for this age group. Have a look at our recommended reading.
  • Use real words, like ‘death’ and ‘died’, as euphemisms like ‘lost’ or ‘passed away’ can cause misunderstanding and confusion – toddlers have a very literal understanding and think in a very concrete manner.
  • Encourage play as an outlet for expressing thoughts and feelings.
  • Young tamariki / children may need to hear the story of what happened to the person they loved repeated as they get older and reach different developmental stages.
  • Talk about who is looking after them and keeping them safe.
  • Include them in doing something for the tangi or funeral, like drawing a picture to put in the casket or on the service sheet.
  • Create a memory box together.

Supporting young tamariki / children (5-12 years)

Tamariki / children of this age group have a better understanding of death but are still learning. They may think their special person will come back, or be concerned that, in death, they’re cold or lonely, and may believe they are somehow responsible for the death (magical thinking is most prominent between 2-7 years). Those aged 10-12 years generally understand that death is permanent and may be more sensitive to how you, and others, are reacting to loss and grief. They may ask a lot of questions, often repeating the same one many times as they process the situation.

Young tamariki / children may become forgetful, distracted, withdrawn, feel physically unwell and develop changes in sleeping and eating habits. Those aged 10-12 may have stronger emotional responses, such as anger and guilt. They might fear for the wellbeing of other whānau members, sometimes taking on more ‘adult’ responsibilities and suppressing their grief to avoid worrying mātua / parents or caregivers or siblings. There may also be problems at kura / school, both academic and social. Tamariki / children of this age group could feel different or embarrassed, known among their classmates as ‘the one who lost their brother / sister / parent / caregiver.’

What you can do:

  • Reassure them they are safe and who is looking after them (they may want to know who will look after them if you die).
  • Keep the kura / school informed and ask them to notify you of behavioural changes.
  • Maintain routines plus social activities and hobbies.
  • Maintain the usual ground rules for behaviour.
  • Encourage questions, provide honest answers, acknowledge their feelings, explain death.
  • Include them in tangi or funeral preparations or memorials and rituals.
  • Offer encouragement, reassurance and understanding - often!
  • Make time to be with them, hang out together so they can talk if they want to – with you, or someone else they trust.

Supporting teenagers (13+ years)

Mātātahi / young people of this age have a better understanding of death but may not have experienced such a loss before. Their emotions may be intense, conflicting, and difficult to express. There may be anger, defiance, risk-taking or reckless behaviour, self-harm through alcohol and drugs, depression and/or suicidal thoughts, and some may even blame themselves for the death of their loved one. Teens may also try to take on responsibilities that aren’t age-appropriate.

It’s not unusual for teenagers dealing with grief to spend more time with close friends rather than whānau. But they may also experience embarrassment, a lowering of self-esteem, and feeling different among their peers. Social and academic difficulties at kura / school may also develop over time.

At first, it might seem complex when you’re thinking about how best to support a teenager during a time of grief and loss.

You’ll probably think about their:

  • Relationship to the person who has died.
  • Past experiences with death, grief and loss.
  • Developing skills, strengths, and weaknesses.
  • Emotional mood swings and behaviour.
  • Tendency to feel bullet-proof.

But in fact it’s quite simple. The best approach to supporting your teenager is to put all that complexity aside and just be there. Walk alongside them as a companion but still be a parent / caregiver, maintaining boundaries, setting an example and providing support and guidance as you always do.

What you can do:

  • Help them understand the services, rituals, protocols, or cultural expectations around death. Offer the option to take part to whatever degree they’re comfortable.
  • Make time to speak with your teenager about the bigger picture of birth, living and dying from a philosophical point of view (as appropriate for their age).
  • Showing your emotions can help ‘normalise’ the grieving process and reassure your teenager that it’s OK to show theirs.
  • Be accepting - validate their emotions and talk things through.
  • Allow appropriate expression of their feelings (whenever and however). Suggest ways of expressing grief, perhaps keeping a diary or some individual counselling.
  • Foster and encourage relationships with peers and wider whānau members.
  • Include teens in discussions about the future and offer choices when possible.
  • Within their peer group, they may be tagged as ‘the person whose sibling died’ so be there and walk alongside them. Encourage connections with trusted friends and adults and see if you can find local teen support groups.
  • Keep requests for extra help at home appropriate for age and experience, and allow time for the usual hobbies, sports and recreational activities.
  • Be patient and have empathy.
  • Focus on their individual strengths and achievements, giving equal attention.
  • Maintain the usual boundaries and behaviour parameters and watch for changes in behaviour. Keep in touch with them.