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Feature Article


Helping Children Cope with Loss

Robert Hughes, Jr., Ph.D., Former Professor, Department of Human Development & Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia


Many children in single-parent families feel loss, which can make them feel rejected or lonely. Coping with loss is one of the most difficult tasks for children in single-parent families. They can have these same feelings if their parents are divorced, never married, or if a parent has died. In cases where the parents get a divorce or where one parent dies, children will feel this loss right away. In cases where the parents have never married, children may not have these feelings until they see that some other children live with both parents. In each case, they mourn the loss of the parent or the loss of a family life.

Children must cope with their sense of loss, but they also need to build a new sense of their family. Help them build strong relationships with other family members, friends, and other adults. This will help them have a sense of security and belonging.

Feelings of Loss
When children feel loss, they feel sadness, and they fear that other losses will follow. In the case of death or divorce, children will miss the pattern of family life as well as the missing parent. Children whose parents never married may miss a family life they dreamed of or hoped for.

One of the most common ways for children to deal with their feelings of loss is to pretend that nothing has changed. They may pretend that a parent has not really left or died. They may insist that the missing parent will return. They may dream that everything will be like it used to be.

It is also common for children to fear that the other parent is going to leave them too. As they begin to realize that one parent has left the home, they may think the other parent will also leave. Some very fearful children may not let that parent out of their sight.

Children often think that losing a parent is a sign that they are not worthy of love. They may even think, “If I was really important, this wouldn’t have happened.” They may feel badly about themselves. It is very important for children to understand that changes in their parents’ lives do not mean they are not loved.

Coping With Grief
It is important to understand that children do feel loss. They have moments of sadness and long for a family life they had in the past or one that might have been. Adults must care about these feelings, even though they may trigger strong feelings of loss or anger in the adult. Sometimes it is very difficult to help children deal with their feelings.

Many times children simply need a chance to talk about their feelings and to realize that people do care about them. This means listening to what they say and explaining things they may not understand.

Stable, Loving Relationships
Children need to understand that changes in their family life do not mean that they are being rejected. They need to hear this from their parents, but they also need to feel it and see it. For divorced or never-married parents, this means that children must continue to see both mom and dad. The clearest way that children can know that their parents both love them is to be with them regularly. In cases of abuse, it might be better to keep a parent away from the child, but most children will benefit from being with both parents.

A warm, secure relationship with the parent still at home will also help children’s sense of loss. Set up routines at home such as regular times for meals, bed, chores, and homework to give children a sense of order. Make some special times for sharing feelings and thoughts, such as at dinner or just before bed. Let children talk about what they are feeling and doing. Share love with hugs, special notes, and talking together. Remind children that their parents care about them.

Support System
In addition to parents, many other people in children’s lives can provide love and encouragement. It helps most children to be in contact with other people during a time of change in the family.

All of the people who are involved with the children should know what’s happening to the family. Teachers, day care workers, aunts and uncles, and neighbors should know that the child may be having a hard time at home. They can give extra hugs and kind words to the child. They can be ready to listen if the child has some special concerns or questions. They may also protect the child from being teased by other children.

The best sign for children that they are worth loving is having others care about them. While all children should have ties with others, children who have lost a parent due to death or who have little contact with the divorced parent may really need to be involved with other adults. Help children visit other people and create chances for children to spend time with grandparents, relatives, neighbors, and others. That will remind the child of all the people who care about him or her.

Other children may also help. Playing, having a good time, and being with friends will help children feel good about themselves. Some schools and communities have support groups for children in single-parent families. These groups may help children see how other kids are coping.

Children in single-parent families may have strong feelings of loss, but they can learn to deal with these feelings as adults give them love, make them feel secure, and help them build strong ties with others who can give them support and comfort.

Discussion Questions
The following questions can be used to talk about loss with children.

  1. We all need people who care about us. Who are some of the people that care about you?
  2. We all need friends. Who are some of your good friends? Why are they your friend? What sort of things do good friends do with each other?
  3. When one of your parents goes to live somewhere some kids feel like this parent doesn’t love them anymore. Have you ever felt that way? What do you do when you feel like that?
  4. When you feel sad or lonely, who can you talk to?

Have your children draw pictures of all of the people who care about them. First have them draw themselves in the middle of the paper. Then around them draw all of the people who care about them. This could include friends, brothers and sisters, neighbors, teachers, grandparents, and other relatives.



Last Updated 05/12/2009


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