Chapter 1: Support strategies

Strategies for feelings and behaviours

The expert says
Andrea Warnick, children's grief therapist, explains the importance of teaching children responses to the question: What happened?(3:22)Video transcript
The expert says
Andrea Warnick, children's grief therapist, encourages parents to let children grieve.(3:22)Video transcript
The expert says
Camara Van Breemen, nurse practitioner, talks about grief as an individual, as a family, and as a community.(3:22)Video transcript

We found that when it comes to feelings, it helps to "name them to tame them."


Children often express their feelings through their behaviour. They may not understand what they are feeling or have the words to express their feelings.  Some behaviour may be concerning and is best addressed early on. 

There are many strategies to help a grieving child. These are some suggestions.

Teach the words

Help your children develop an emotional vocabulary.

  • This is the ability to name different feelings.

I'm angry.

I'm sad.

I'm worried.

  • When children can give names to their feelings, those emotions generally feel less confusing or overwhelming.
  • Let them know adults experience these same feelings.

State what you’re witnessing

When a child is expressing big feelings, they often find it helps when their parent or another trusted adult:

·      Calmly witnesses the behaviour

·      Describes what they see the child doing.

·      When necessary, suggests safer ways to express grief.

Wow, you’re really hitting that pillow hard.

I see you’re making the face you make when you’re really angry. Let’s think about what we can do to help keep you safe and make your body feel more calm.

I see you’re spending a lot of time alone in your bedroom these days. You seem to need a lot of sleep since your mom died. 

Teach the difference between feelings and behaviours

  • Explain that all their feelings are important and need care, but certain behaviour is not acceptable. 
    • For example, it's okay to feel angry but it's not acceptable to kick your little brother or sister.

Sort out needs

  • Try to identify the feelings and the need behind the behaviour, then find ways to meet those needs. 
    • For example, if your child clings to you when you drop them off at daycare, they might be frightened you'll die too. Try asking:

I'm wondering if you feel worried when I say goodbye  at daycare.

Explore acceptable responses

  • Brainstorm together how to care for difficult feelings like anger, fear or sadness. Talk about safely expressing their feelings without hurting themselves, another person or a pet, or an object such as a favourite toy. Some children find it helps to:
    • Talk with someone they trust.
    • Write or draw about what's upsetting them. 
    • Cry - alone or with someone.
    • Look at photos or a memory box of the person they're missing.
    • Cuddle something that belonged to the person or a blanket made of their clothing.
  • Write a My Feeling Very Sad List and My Feeling Very Mad List of things your child can do when they're upset.
    • Involve your child in writing the lists.
    • Have them sign it.
    • Place it somewhere they'll see it often, such as the fridge or their bedroom door.  
    • Do one yourself - its a great way to model grief!

Allie’s Feeling Really Sad List      (Age 7)                       

·      Remind myself it’s okay to be sad

·      Listen to music

·      Do a sad dance

·      Kick around the soccer ball

·      Look at photos or my memory box

·      Cry

·      Talk to mom or dad

·      Talk to one of my friends

·      Read a book in my quiet corner

·      Write or draw in my journal

·      Cuddle my stuffie or mom or dad

·      Play basketball    


Christopher’s Feeling Really Mad List  (Age 13)

·      Remind myself it’s okay to be mad

·      Do my angry dance

·      Play my guitar

·      Take some deep breaths

·      Talk to someone

·      Press the pause button (breathe in for 4 counts through my nose, breathe out for 8 counts through my mouth)

·      Write in a journal

·      Go for a walk or run

·      Kick the soccer ball around outside

·      Punch my pillow

·      Stack firewood

·      Listen to music in my room

Wait for a calm moment 

It’s difficult to help children figure out other ways to express “big feelings” when they’re in the middle of a meltdown. It’s best to have this conversation when they’re calmer.  In the meantime:

·      Stay with your child.

·      Know it’s okay not to say anything at all.

·      Witness their expression of feelings.

·      Make sure they don’t hurt themselves or anyone else.

·      When your child is calmer and able to hear you let them know you’re there for them, and their feelings are normal.

Talk to your child’s teacher

It may help to talk with your child’s teachers about creating a list of sad and mad activities for them if they’re having a hard time at school.


Seek grief support

Sometimes children benefit from outside help and spending time with peers who are also grieving. This can take the form of:

  • Grief support groups;
  • Bereavement camps; and,
  • Formal counselling with someone who specializes in children’s grief.

If you seek counselling for yourself, let your children know. This is another way to model healthy grieving.