Talking to Children About Violent Loss
Talk with your child. Be factual but let your child’s questions be your guide. Children know when something is wrong. A child who gets no explanation may feel excluded and may become fearful or withdrawn. Avoid telling them half-truths. A child told that death is like sleeping may be afraid to go to sleep.
Avoid disturbing details. They need an honest explanation of what has happened, but they do not need much detail. Protect them from conversations with police or others about the crime.
It is normal for a child to talk about himself or herself. Questions like, “Am I going to die?” are not selfish or foolish; they show that the child is trying to understand.
Spend time playing with your child. Children, even teens, may not be able to talk about their feelings. A young child may act out feelings in play. An older child may open up if you are open about your feelings first. Make cookies, play cards, do something they want to do, and let the conversation flow naturally.
Remember that most children grieve in short bursts. Unlike adults, children find comfort in the return of routine. They have not forgotten their loss, but the normalcy of school or play actually helps them deal with the sadness inside.
Protect young children from emotional outbursts by adults. It is healthy to share the grieving process with your child, but not when it becomes chaotic or frightening. It may be helpful for a grieving child to have a personal “ally” (an aunt or uncle or a family friend) to calm an anxious child and relieve the parents of total responsibility.
Reassure your child when you are overcome by grief. It is normal for you to experience spasms of grief for a long time, but a parent’s continued grief may frighten or confuse a child or may cause a child to feel excluded or less loved. Reassure your child of your love.
Share your grief, but do not ask your child to take care of you. Do not ask children to “be strong” for you or for anyone else. That is too great a burden to carry. Understand that adolescent children may not want to grieve with you.
When remembering a deceased child, it’s good to keep the memories real. We want to remember the good times, but a surviving child also needs to know a brother or sister was not perfect. Help your child understand you love each of them the way they are.
As children get older and develop intellectually and emotionally, they will need to revisit the death and their feelings.
Signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children and Youth
Violent loss affects children of all ages, but the effects differ depending on their age. If you notice these signs of trauma in your child, Chicago Survivors Youth Program can help. Please call our office or hotline anytime. Remember to tell your child’s pediatrician about it, too.
In very young children, these symptoms can include:
- Forgetting how or being unable to talk
- Acting out the scary event during playtime
- Being unusually clingy with a parent or other adult.
- Bedwetting, when they’d learned how to use the toilet before
- Acting out aggressively, screaming
Older children or teens may have symptoms more like adults:
1. Re-Experiencing Symptoms
- Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms
- Bad dreams
- Frightening thoughts.
2. Avoidance Symptoms
- Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry
- Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past
- Having trouble remembering the dangerous event.
3. Hyper-Arousal Symptoms
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense or “on edge”
- Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts
In addition, older children and teens may:
- Develop disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behaviors
- Feel guilty for not preventing injury or death
- Have thoughts of revenge.
If you notice these symptoms of trauma in your child, talk with Chicago Survivors about child or youth counseling.