Grief Counseling for Children

Grief counseling can help your child learn to healthily deal with loss

Whether your child has lost a grandparent, sibling, parent, or pet, the loss of a loved one can feel overwhelming. Watching a child grieve can stir up a lot of emotions for caregivers too.

Sometimes, a little professional help may be warranted. Grief counseling can help kids find healthy ways to cope with their distress while also making sense of their loss.

Why Grief Counseling May Be Needed

Most children recover from grief without any long-term emotional problems, but some children experience significant emotional problems that persist over time.

Children who experience long-term problems after the loss of a loved one report high levels of distress. They may struggle to concentrate in school, exhibit increased behavior problems, or have difficulty forming healthy relationships.

Children who are struggling to manage their grief may be at a higher risk of developing mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or an adjustment disorder.

Sometimes, ongoing distress arises when the loss stems from particularly difficult circumstances. For example, a child who survives an accident where a loved one dies may experience extra guilt, fear, and confusion.

Children may also experience excessive guilt about a loved one's death. A child may think that being mad at someone may have somehow led to that person's death. Or, a child may believe their behavior somehow caused something bad to happen. Grief counseling can help a child develop healthier beliefs. 

When caregivers are struggling to deal with a loss too, grief counseling may be a good idea. A mother mourning the loss of her partner may not be able to be emotionally present for her child. Or, a father who is grieving the loss of a parent may have a hard time talking to children about the loss when he’s struggling too.

When Children Suffer Depression After Death of a Parent

How Grief Counseling Helps

Children of all ages can have difficulty processing loss. Young children have difficulty understanding that death is permanent. And older children may develop fears about losing other loved ones or they may be confused about how to express uncomfortable emotions.

Here are a few things counseling can do for children:

  • Validate their feelings
  • Help them process complex emotions, like anger, sadness, fear, and confusion
  • Allow them to talk about their experience in a safe environment
  • Help children learn how to honor their loss
  • Provide support to family members and caregivers who want to help a grieving child
  • Assist in adapting to the loss of a loved one

Types of Grief Counseling

Typically, children ages preschool and above can benefit from grief counseling. Younger children are more likely to engage in activities and play that help them process their feelings, while older children may spend more time talking about their emotions and experiences.

There are several different types of grief counseling for children, including:

  • Grief groups: Children may benefit from meeting with other children in their age group who have also experienced loss. Young children may work on art projects, engage in music therapy, or learn specific coping skills with a trained professional. Adolescent groups may talk about their loss with their peers. Many communities offer free or low-cost grief groups for children.
  • Individual therapy: Children may attend counseling sessions primarily on their own. A grief counselor will likely want to consult with you to learn how your child is doing and then your child may be given time to speak with a counselor privately. Young children may engage in activities like drawing while older children may focus more on talking.
  • Family therapy: Parents or siblings may be invited to attend sessions together so everyone can talk about the loss. Parents are usually given psycho-education on how to best support a grieving child as well.

What Happens During Grief Counseling

What happens during grief counseling depends on your child’s age, needs, and the grief counselor’s preferred strategies. But here are some things that may occur during a counseling session:

  • Drawing or coloring pictures of a loved one who has passed away and identifying what they will miss most about the individual
  • Developing rituals with the family to help a child honor a loved one’s memory, such as deciding how to honor a loved one’s birthday after the person has passed away
  • Reading books about grief and loss together with a counselor
  • Talking about all the emotions that stem from grief
  • Developing strategies to deal with sadness, such as drawing, talking to a friend, looking at pictures, or hugging a stuffed animal
  • Using play therapy to help children process their loss in a healthy way
  • Identifying strategies to deal with fear, such as the fear of losing another loved one
  • Working on a workbook about grief and loss
  • Creating a scrapbook of their favorite memories with their loved one
  • Consulting with caregivers about how to best help a child deal with specific emotions or certain issues

Signs You Should Seek Professional Help

You might decide to take your child to see a counselor at any time after a loss—even if you don’t see any serious warning signs. Talking to someone about a loss could be helpful in preventing problems before they start. And it could help put your mind at ease.

If you see any of these warning signs after a loss, it’s important to take your child to a grief counselor if these symptoms last more than a couple of weeks:

  • Frequent bad dreams about death or nightmares
  • Lack of interest in former activities
  • Chronic complaints of headaches, stomachaches, or other physical symptoms with no known medical cause
  • Increased behavior problems
  • Changes in mood
  • Decline in school performance
  • Increased social isolation
  • Greater irritability
  • Debilitating fear of death or the loss of another loved one

If your child expresses thoughts of wanting to harm or kill himself, seek help right away. Contact your child’s physician, go to the emergency room, or call a crisis hotline.

Keep in mind that your child may benefit from counseling at different developmental stages. A preschooler who experiences a loss may need counseling as a teen to really process the loss that she has a new perspective on what it means for her life. She may need help grieving that her loved one won’t be there for future milestones, like graduation or a wedding.

Where to Find Grief Counseling

Your child’s physician may be the best source of information when you’re looking for grief counseling. Schedule an appointment or call the office to inquire about local resources.

If your child is in school, the guidance counselor may also be able to help you find a grief counselor or grief groups in your area. Your local area hospice may also be able to provide you with information and resources. There are also many online therapy directories that may help.

Be sure to look for a counselor who has experience working with children and one who is familiar with helping kids deal with grief.

How to Explain to Your Child

Your child may be confused about why she needs to see a counselor. Explaining it in a healthy way can reduce your child’s fears about going to meet with someone new.

Compare emotional wounds to physical wounds. Say something like, “When you scrape your knee, we clean it out and take care of it at home. But if you really hurt yourself, we’d go see a doctor to take care of your wound. Emotional wounds are similar. Sometimes, we can take care of them at home but sometimes, when they’re more serious, we should go see a professional who can help us.”

Explain that a grief counselor will help her learn how to deal with tough emotions, like sadness and anger, and make it clear that those feelings are normal after experiencing a loss.

What to Expect From a First Appointment

A counselor will likely want to meet with you and your child during the initial appointment. You may be given paperwork to complete about your child’s history and any concerns that you have.

The appointment may last an hour or two. A counselor will want to know about your child’s health history, school performance, family situation, daily habits, and the loss your child has experienced.

The counselor may have some questions for your child and may want to meet with your child privately (especially if your child is an adolescent). The counselor may request that you sign a release of information that allows permission to speak with your child’s physician, teacher, or other caregivers.

The counselor will offer recommendations, such as weekly appointments or a referral to group therapy.

A Word From Verywell

Children often look to the adults around them to learn how to deal with grief and loss. So, while it may be tempting to hide your emotions from your child, doing so may confuse your child.

He may wonder why you’re not sad or he may think it’s wrong that he feels strong emotions and you don’t. It’s important to talk about your feelings (without burdening your child) and show your child healthy coping strategies for dealing with distress.

It can be tough to help kids deal with grief when you’re grieving as well. It’s important to take care of yourself and see a counselor to help you deal with your emotions if you’re struggling.

Tips to Help Yourself in Times of Grief
Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • Boelen PA, Spuij M, Reijntjes AH. Prolonged grief and posttraumatic stress in bereaved children: A latent class analysis. Psychiatry Research. 2017;258:518-524. DOI: 10.1016/j.psychres.2017.09.002.

  • Andriessen K, Hadzi-Pavlovic D, Draper B, Dudley M, Mitchell PB. The adolescent grief inventory: Development of a novel grief measurement. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2018;240:203-211. DOI: 10.1016/j.jad.2018.07.012.