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How to help a Child Cope with Death and Divorce

Hispanic girl with hostile parents

It is extremely difficult for a child to cope with the loss of a loved one or the separation of parents. If the parent must deal with their own grief, it is hard for that parent to help the child, as well. Children who are young don’t understand much about death and divorce, and this depends much on the age of the child, the child’s individual personality, and the child’s life experiences. There are many factors that come into play in all of these cases. You should remember to be honest with your child and allow him to ask questions. Create an atmosphere of trust, comfort, and openness when discussing divorce or death with a child.

How to Help a Child Cope with Death

Death is a difficult topic to discuss with children, especially if they are young or learning impaired. Some children see things only in concrete terms and think literally. This guide will help answer some of the questions that you, the parent, may be wondering.

How do I explain death on a child’s level?

To explain death in a child’s terms, you should send the message that there is no right way to feel and no wrong way to feel, as well. Sometimes, family members share their spiritual beliefs with the child and encourage cultural preferences. Depending on your child’s age and level of intelligence, he may or may not completely understand the concept of death. Each child is unique and this understanding will depend on your approach to discussing it and it will vary according to the individual child.

Children under the age of five or six see the world in concrete, basic terms. Everything must be discussed literally. Many can comprehend ‘lost and gone forever’ regarding the loved one. If someone dies suddenly from a freak accident, you can explain that because of this sad thing, the person’s body has now stopped working. Some parents tell children that ‘dead’ or ‘dying’ means that the body quit working. If the loved one was really ill or elder, you may tell the child that the doctors couldn’t fix the body anymore and it quit working. Some parents tell their children that it is ‘natural’ for old people to ‘pass away’.

Eventually, children grow to understand that all people and other living things eventually die and that it is final. This is frustrating for a child who continually asked when the loved one is coming back. The parent should try to bring up spiritual beliefs at this time or explain this calmly in simple terms. Avoid using euphemisms, as this will only confuse the child. This includes telling the child that someone ‘went to sleep’ or ‘went away’. The child will think that the loved one is capable of returning and this can be confusing and complicated.

When a child is six or seven, he begins to come to terms with the finality of death. Children age ten and younger try to personify death and consider it the ‘boogeyman’, a ghost, or a skeleton. This is why you should be honest when you explain what happened and stick to clear, simple answers. As your child matures from a young child to a preteen or teenager, he will then understand that every human will eventually die, regardless of wishes, behavior, or anything else they try to do. Questions may come up about mortality and vulnerability at this age, too. Some teens get scared after friends have accidents on cars and motorcycles. You should remind your teen to use his seatbelt, don’t drive reckless, and follow the rules of the road when driving.

Teens often experience guilt when someone dies. This is the time one starts to explore the meaning of life and search for reasons and answers. You should encourage the expression of grief and share your family’s spiritual ideas and beliefs at this time. School counselors, community organizations, churches, and other facilities offer grief counseling and these individuals can help your child through these tough times and inevitable losses.

What can I expect during the mourning process?

anxious-childMany parents wonder if it is right to take the child to a funeral. It is really up to you, your cultural beliefs, and your child’s individual personality. Remember that it is appropriate in most cultures for children to be a part of the mourning ritual. Before you go, you may want to explain what happens at memorials and funerals so your child will have some idea on what to expect. This is another good opportunity to teach your child about the meaning of death in spiritual terms and to go over the mourning ritual that your family observes. If you think your own grief will interfere with your ability to nurture your child through this process, ask a family member or friend to help out so you won’t have to carry this burden alone. Choose someone you like and trust for this important role, however.

It is a natural response to worry about your child witnessing your own pain and grief. Allow your child to see that you cry and hurt because of a loss and that this is a natural emotional reaction to loss. Your child may feel more comfortable sharing his feelings and grieving in front of others if he knows it is OK to do so. Sharing your sadness with your child will make him feel like he is normal and knowing you are there for him makes him feel safe.

What more can I do for my child?

Children learn how to deal with a loved one’s passing in an individual way. One may ignore that it has happened and not want to talk about it. Another child may ask many questions and express emotional responses when these are given. As children learn to deal with death, they need your patience and understanding that they are grieving in their own way.

Remember, a child may not grieve as an adult does. A young child will probably not cry and may get hyperactive or start acting out at home or school after the death. A teen may not discuss this with parents, rather, he may turn to peers for support and comfort. Whatever the child’s reaction, don’t take it seriously or think it is not appropriate. Children grieve differently from adults and this is a learning process.

There are some signs that your child needs help coping with the passing of a loved one. If the child’s behavior changes drastically, for instance, a happy, easygoing child suddenly is grumpy or angry or if a straight A student suddenly starts making Cs and Ds. This is when you may want to take your child to a healthcare professional for assistance. These experts can provide the necessary assistance for you and your child and make recommendation. There are many support groups that offer help to grieving people. Churches are a great source of refuge and support, too. Remember, you can’t shield your child from loss and sadness always, but you can help him cope and find good resources that he can rely on for the remainder of his life.

How to Help a Child Cope with Divorce

Thousands of children experience the hurt and stress that comes with parental divorce. How your child reacts will depend on his age, his personality, and the particular circumstances that surround the separation and divorce. Most every divorce involves the children in some way. Since divorce is such an emotional time for everyone, it is best to remain calm, avoid conflict, and keep the child from suffering the pain of angry words.

Your child’s initial reaction may be one of shock. The child will soon become frustrated and angry over the situation. Eventually, expect some sadness and emotional pain from the child. Some kids go into a state of denial and refuse to accept the uncomfortable facts. Other kids acknowledge that it is happening but are aloof and try to hide their real feelings about the situation.

There are some really important things that both parents should do to make this easier for the children. These include:

– Keep heated discussions, visible conflict, angry feelings, and legal talk away from the kids.
– Minimize the disturbances to children’s daily routines.
– Avoid being negative about the other person and don’t openly blame the other in front of the children. Save this for private therapy sessions and conversations with adults.
– Allow for both parents to remain involved with the children’s lives.

How do I break the bad news?

Before you tell your child anything, make sure you are certain of your plans. Talk to your child about you and your spouse’s decision to live apart and know that there is no easy way to break the news. If you can, have both of you present for this conversation and avoid name-calling or blame during it. Practice what you are going to say and remain as calm and unemotional as possible.

The most critical point you can make during this conversation is that whatever has happened between the parents does not involve the children in no way. Most children feel guilty when parents divorce, so it is vital that you drive this point home. You should simply tell your child or children that adults change as they age and when they can’t agree on things, they sometimes have to live apart. Remind the children that they will continue to be tied together for life through the children, however. Explain that both parents will continue to love the child regardless of the situation.

As a parent, you only need to give your child enough information to prepare him for this upcoming live change. Answer his questions appropriately and honestly. Remember, children don’t need to be in on all the details of the divorce and it is OK to co-parent in separate homes. The child should have as much normalcy to daily life, however, as possible. Divorce is common, so children are aware of the concept and may have friends that have dealt with it recently, too.

For younger kids, you may want to keep your words simple. Say something like: “Daddy and Mommy are going to live in separate houses so they don’t fight any more but we both still love you very much.” Older children and teens will be more in tune with what is going on and may ask specific questions. Just try to be honest and not be negative about the other person.

How do I handle my child’s reactions?


You should let your child know that you understand and care about his feelings and reassure him that things are going to be alright. You could say something like: “I know this is distressing for you, but let’s focus on the future and how we can still all get along living apart.” Not all children will react right away, however. Let your child know that this is OK, too, and when he wants to talk, you will be there for him. Some children will try to please the parents by acting exceptionally good and may beg and plead for the two of you to stay together. Many will outright deny that the divorce is even happening. Stress may show up with relationships, changes in appetite, sleep pattern disturbances, and other ways.

Regardless of how your child expresses his worry or relief regarding this situation, you should be prepared to answer questions like:

– Who will I live with?
– Where will I go to school?
– Will I move?
– Where will each parent live?
– Where will we spend holidays such as Thanksgiving?
– Will I still get to see my friends?
– Will I have to go to a different school?
– Can I still go to camp this summer?
– Can I still play my favorite sport?
Just be sure to be honest with your answers and remember that your child may not react in the way you expect. Children can surprise you with how well they accept disappointment. It is always the best thing to do.

How can I help my child cope with the divorce?

Many children – and parents – grieve the loss of the marriage and family life they had dreamed for. Some children simply miss the presence of the other parent and the life they had when everyone was together. Another important thing to know is that it is common for kids to want their parents to get back together and hope that they will eventually remarry.

Mourning the loss of the family is normal for both you and your children. Eventually, everyone will come to accept and better tolerate the situation. Here are some things you can do to help your child cope with this:

Encourage honesty from your child and be honest yourself. Your child will need to know that his feelings are important to both parents and that he’ll be taken seriously.

Help him express feelings with words. Your child’s behavior can often clue you in to his feelings of anger or sadness. You could say: “It seems as if you’re feeling sad right now. Do you know what’s making you feel so sad?” Be a better listener, even if it’s difficult for you to hear what they have to say.

Legitimize their feelings. Saying “I know you feel sad now” or “I know it feels lonely without dad here” let your child know that his feelings are valid. It’s important to encourage your child to get it all out before you start offering ways to make it better. Let your child know it’s also alright to feel happy or relieved or excited about the future.

Offer support for your child. Ask, “What do you think will help you feel better?” They might not be able to name something, but you can suggest a few ideas — maybe just to sit together for a while, take a walk, or hold a favorite stuffed animal. Younger children will especially appreciate an offer to call Daddy on the phone or to make a picture to give to Mommy when she comes at the end of the day.

Keep yourself and your child healthy. For adults, separation and divorce is seriously stressful. That pressure may be amplified by property, custody, and financial issues, which can bring out the worst in most people.

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