How I support younger bereaved children

By Nicola Swales, Bereavement Support Practitioner

Supporting a bereaved younger child requires a very particular approach as they are often less able to understand or articulate ‘big feelings’ and are overwhelmed by them.  They are also likely to ‘puddle jump’, where they move through different emotions very quickly; one moment they may be very upset, then the next they may want to play. 

Most younger children don’t have the attention span to talk for a long time about their bereavement.  Some children can have more capacity to concentrate, but you need to be guided by the individual child.  My experience working with groups of younger children is that they hit a ceiling and then can’t talk about their bereavement anymore - that’s when I might move on to a more relaxed, fun topic. 

I spend a lot of time helping younger children understand their feelings and recognise that these feelings are normal and OK.  One way I do this is by ‘body mapping’ which involves thinking about where in their body a feeling is, how their body is reacting, and what their brain is thinking or ‘saying’ when they have the emotion.  I make this concrete by getting the young person to show where the feelings are on a drawing of themselves or on a big gingerbread man.

Another way to help children understand their feelings is by using colours; they might make a jar of sand of different colours, each representing a feeling they have about the person who had died.  All these things help them to give their feelings a name and normalise them. 

A lot of the work with younger children is about helping them to articulate the questions they want to ask and what they don’t understand, while helping them to understand that it’s OK to have lots of different feelings. Often, they say they have a strange feeling, but can’t pinpoint what it is or where it comes from.  One of the things we see a lot is anger and I work with the young people on ways to focus that anger and recognise what the triggers and stresses are for them. 

It’s also helpful to help them understand who or what supports them and what makes them feel better when they feel upset. 

Creative work, making abstract ideas visual, is key to working with younger children.  You need to discover what works for each child and explore that together.  It’s important to bring lightness and fun to help younger children decompress, helping them to cope with what can be for them very deep conversations. 

You need to remember that children are the experts on their grief; don’t assume you know how they think or feel.  Let them guide you and work in partnership with them. 

Nicola Swales, Bereavement Support Practitioner, Child Bereavement UK