Grief Counseling for Children: What To Know and How To Help

Medically reviewed by: Rachel Hughitt, MS
Wednesday, July 19 2023

According to the National Alliance for Children's Grief, it's estimated that 6 million children in the United States will experience the death of a parent or sibling before they turn 18. Dealing with the loss of a loved one is difficult for anyone. For children, however, it can be especially challenging.

Grief counseling for children offers an effective intervention for young kids struggling to cope with a significant loss. To help you support your child through this difficult time and find them the help they need, we'll cover everything you should know about children's grief and grief counseling.‍

Types of grief counseling for children

Grief therapists will use several methods to help children cope when a loved one dies. Depending on what your child needs and their specific mental health challenges, you may wish to explore the following:

Individual counseling

Individual counseling is the most common type of grief support for children coping with a loss. During individual counseling, a grief therapist will work one-on-one with the grieving child, helping them understand the grieving process, encouraging them to express and process their feelings, and using therapeutic techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

Family therapy

In family therapy, grief therapists will work with grieving children as well as the rest of their immediate family members. This type of therapy is typically the better choice for young children who may not be comfortable meeting with a therapist on their own. 

However, family therapy can also be a beneficial approach for older children. It ensures that children feel supported through their grief journey while also teaching their caregivers tools and strategies they can use to help the child outside of therapy sessions.

Group therapy

Group therapy is a common bereavement service for adults, and while support groups for grieving children are a little less common, they can be a helpful resource. Group therapy provides grieving children with peer support, giving them the opportunity to engage with other children who are experiencing similar challenges. 

During group therapy sessions, grief therapists will work to help the entire group communicate and process their feelings rather than providing one-on-one, individual therapy.

Art therapy

Art therapy is a form of play therapy that uses art as a medium to help children communicate their thoughts and emotions. Some young children struggle to communicate what they are feeling even in a safe environment where they feel comfortable. With art therapy, grief therapists instruct children to create drawings or other works of art. They then use the experience as an opportunity to communicate with the child and encourage them to express their feelings.

The benefits of grief therapy for children

Grief therapy can provide many benefits to children struggling to cope with a loss, improving their mental wellness and helping them adjust to their new reality. Here are some of the most notable potential benefits:

Providing a space for openly expressing feelings

Children may keep their feelings bottled up inside if they're afraid to express them openly — or aren't sure how. However, grief therapy sessions provide a safe and welcoming environment for children to express their feelings.

Expressing and processing your feelings is the first step to healing from a loss. With grief therapy, children are provided a space where openly expressing and discussing these feelings comes easier.

Understanding grief and loss

Losing a loved one and the feelings of grief that accompany it can be difficult for adults to navigate — but it may be especially challenging for children who may not understand what loss truly means.

That's why part of a grief therapist’s job is to help their young clients form a better understanding of grief and loss to alleviate fear and confusion. By teaching them about the grieving process, therapists can help children understand their feelings and teach them about death in a safe, comfortable environment. 

Developing coping mechanisms

Grief therapists will commonly work to teach children coping skills and strategies that they can use to help manage their emotions, like relaxation techniques, journaling, communication skills, and self-expression exercises.

These coping mechanisms are things that can benefit children throughout the grieving process. The skills and strategies learned in grief therapy can often go on to benefit children throughout the rest of their childhood and into their adult life. In fact, developing life skills is one of the top reasons why people seek therapy.

Improved communication and relationships

Grief therapists working with children often strive to help them develop better communication skills. They also help them overcome the emotional issues holding back their relationships with others. In both cases, grief therapy can work to improve a child's relationships and teach them how to lean on those relationships for support.

Common grief responses and signs in children

When children are unable to properly communicate what they are feeling, it may be difficult to tell when they’re struggling with feelings of grief. Here are a few common signs of grief and grief responses in children that may indicate your child needs help:

Emotional signs

The loss of a loved one can be an emotional whirlwind for young children. Common emotional responses that children have to a loss include anger and irritability, denial, anxiety, confusion, and emotional numbing. 

With emotional numbing, it’s important to note that difficulty expressing emotions or seeming to not have any emotions at all can actually be signs that a child is struggling to cope — rather than signs that they’re handling the loss well.

Behavioral changes

Intense feelings of grief can result in numerous behavioral changes in children. A few behavioral changes to watch for include things such as a drop in grades, self-harm or other self-destructive behaviors, dangerous risk-taking, and violent play.

Physical symptoms

In both children and adults, intense grief can sometimes cause physical symptoms. Common physical symptoms of grief include headaches, digestive issues, difficulty sleeping (including bad dreams), and changes in appetite.

How to support your child through grief

Even when working with a grief therapist, parents and caregivers play a central role in supporting children through the grieving process. Here are a few tips that you can use to support your child through grief:

Encouraging open communication

There are numerous reasons grieving children are sometimes hesitant to express their thoughts or feelings. This makes it helpful to encourage open communication whenever possible. Let your child know that their feelings — whatever they happen to be — are okay and valid. This will help encourage your child to continue expressing their emotions and come to you for support.

Reassuring safety and love

Children who experience the loss of a close loved one may not feel as safe anymore now that they know what death is and realize that it can happen to the people they love. Be sure to make them feel as safe and secure as possible to help reduce these fears. It's also important to show your child plenty of love and tender loving care throughout the grieving process.

Maintaining routines

Routines provide structure and predictability to a child's life. When a significant loss shakes up a child's world, it's helpful to try and keep everything else in their life as normal as you can. This means continuing to follow normal routines and schedules and continuing to participate in any activities that your child enjoys.

Allowing expressions of feelings

Your child should be allowed and even encouraged to express their feelings when grieving the loss of a loved one. 

There are no wrong answers, and your child should never be punished for telling you what they are feeling — even if their feelings are negative and uncomfortable. Encouraging your child to openly express their feelings will help them process those feelings and will allow them to be honest with you about their struggles.

Finding the right grief therapist for your child

Grief therapy can be an excellent resource for children who are struggling to cope with a loss, and it is especially beneficial when you find the right grief therapist. You'll need to choose a counselor specializing in grief therapy for children — and one whose approach and personality are a good fit for you and your child.

Be sure to involve your child in the decision-making process and let them help choose the counselor. This can help make your child more comfortable with the counselor the two of you ultimately choose and can also help build trust between you and your child.

If you would like assistance finding the right grief therapist for your child, SonderMind can help. With SonderMind, you'll match with online or in-person grief therapists based on your child's individual needs and preferences. 

Learn more about how SonderMind works to see how we connect grieving children with the right therapist.

Match with the right counselor for your child with SonderMind

Dealing with the loss of a parent, sibling, grandparent, or other loved one is one of the most challenging things that a child can face. Thankfully, grief therapy has been proven to help children process their feelings and heal from their loss.

If you would like to match your child with a grief therapist who is ideally suited for them, SonderMind can connect you and your child to a therapist in as little as 48 hours. Be sure to try out SonderMind today to match with the right therapist for your child.

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