Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Helping Bereaved Children and Adolescents: Strategies and Implications for Counselors

Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Helping Bereaved Children and Adolescents: Strategies and Implications for Counselors

Article excerpt

This article provides an overview of how loss affects young people of different ages and describes methods for helping bereaved children and adolescents. Case examples demonstrate the use of drawings to elucidate the inner experiences of young people who are grieving and to facilitate the counseling process. A format for a bereavement support group is detailed, and guidelines are provided for the use of bibliotherapy. Cultural, ethical, and counselor competency issues are also considered. The importance of counselors' awareness of the impact of their own loss experiences is also discussed.


One of the greatest challenges we may ever face as adults is to provide support to a grieving child. This process is particularly difficult because we naturally try to protect children from emotional pain, we may have our own anxieties about death, and we may feel at a loss as to how we can be helpful to a child who is grieving (Webb, 2005). The words of the poet William Wordsworth, written over 200 years ago in "Now We Are Seven," ring as true today as then: "A simple child/that lightly draws its breath/and feels its life in every limb/what should it know of death?" (cited in Webb, p. 3).

Children at different developmental levels perceive death differently. An understanding of these differences is essential if we are to effectively help children understand and cope with their grief. As Webb (2005) notes, by the age of 7 or 8 most children achieve the knowledge about death that we as adults have come to know: death is "irreversible, inevitable, and universal" (p. 4). However, from the preschool years through adolescence, there are significant developmental differences in how children experience grief. Because of these differences, counselors who work with bereaved children and adolescents need to use a variety of approaches in their efforts to meet their needs. To that end, this article reviews developmental factors associated with bereavement in children and adolescents and describes an approach to working with bereaved young people that integrates drawings, bereavement support groups, and bibliotherapy. We also discuss cultural concerns related to grief in young people, and the implications of ethical issues and their own grief experiences for mental health counselors who work with bereaved children and adolescents.


Preschool Children

While their conception of grief is different from that of older children, young children are capable of experiencing sadness and therefore grieve in their own way when a loved one dies. Young children typically do not comprehend the permanence of death and may ask repeatedly when the deceased loved one is coming home (Fitzgerald, 1992). Young children are also prone to magical and egocentric thinking, as Piaget and Inhelder (1969) suggest, and may think that they somehow caused the death because of their inability to differentiate between thoughts and deeds (Webb, 2005). For example, a young girl whose brother has died may think that her past anger toward him caused his death.

Often young children also think that a deceased person's biological functions continue even after burial (Bering & Bjorklund, 2004; Slaughter & Lyons, 2003): A young child may ask how a deceased person can breathe or go to the bathroom after being buried. In the movie My Girl (Grazer, Friendly, Gold, Carraciolo, & Zieff, 1998), which deals sensitively with different types of loss throughout the life span, a little girl puts her best friend's eyeglasses on him in the casket so that he will be able to see after he is buried (Webb).

Preschoolers often consider death to be temporary and reversible (Nagy, 1948; Speece & Brent, 1984). This belief was poignantly demonstrated by a 5-year-old girl whom I (JM) saw for counseling. Her parents were going through a divorce, and she had recently returned from the funeral of her aunt. …

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