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Helping pre-schoolers cope with loss & grief

 
Sadly it’s a fact that many preschoolers will be exposed to some form of loss and grief in their early years. Whether it’s when a pet or someone close dies, if their parents separate or a good friend moves away. Toddlers and preschoolers don’t really understand how the world works, so how do we explain loss and grief to them?
Sadly it’s a fact that many preschoolers will be exposed to some form of loss and grief in their early years. Whether it’s when a pet or someone close dies, if their parents separate or a good friend moves away. Toddlers and preschoolers don’t really understand how the world works, so how do we explain loss and grief to them?
 

When someone dies

When someone close such as a grandparent or a pet dies, it’s not uncommon for young children to start behaving badly or needing more reassurance. They know something’s happened, but are confused by the strange new feelings that they are experiencing.

It’s important to be honest with your child and to take things slowly, giving them time to understand what’s going on. At this stage in their life, they may not be able to grasp that death is permanent. But making up stories like, ‘grandma is just having a big sleep’ doesn’t help. In fact, it just increases confusion.

A good place to start is explaining the events through drawings which your preschooler can understand. They can also use their own drawings to express their feelings.
 
Try to avoid words like ‘never’ and ‘forever’ as preschoolers don’t really know what they mean. It is better to explain through terms like, ‘We had the blue car, but we don’t have it now and we can’t have it again. It is the same with our cat Tiger’.
 
While sharing emotions, try to keep it simple, such as, ‘It’s sad that Grandma died and I’m very sad too.’ Look at photos, with explanations like, ‘We can look at Grandma in photos, but we can’t visit her anymore’.
 
At the same time reassure your child that the rest of their world hasn’t changed, such as, ‘We will still see Auntie Helen, we will still go to daycare...’ etc.

Give your child plenty of hugs and keep as much of their daily routine as stable as possible.
 

Parents separating

If you and your partner separate, your preschooler will most likely be confused as to why their parents are no longer living together. The most important thing to do is reassure them that you will love them regardless.
 
Ideally, parents should explain the situation to their preschooler together, rather than separately. This is the beginning of a process that hopefully you can keep amicable. It’s important to always put your child’s emotional, psychological and personal needs first.

Your preschooler might need to have several conversations with you to help understand the situation some more. Little ones often can’t grasp explanations when they’re first told or need time to think about things.

Be sure to repeat to your preschooler that the separation is not their fault, that it’s not happening because they were naughty or did something wrong and it’s not something they can fix. They need to know that they can still love Mummy and Daddy just as much and equally, and that they don’t ever have to take sides.
 
Again, drawings can be great to explain why Mummy or Daddy are living in a different place. You can show how they will get to a new house and a picture of a new bedroom. If you are unsure how long the separation will last, then be honest. Don’t promise anything in explanations that you can’t honestly keep to.
 

Saying goodbye to friends & family

Toddlers and preschoolers usually deal quite well with friends moving away, but it may be their first experience of loss. They don’t understand why family or friends might want to move. To toddlers, it is just silly behaviour, and they might react by acting up, regressing by wetting their pants or destroying possessions.

Unlike a sudden death, you can plan the time to talk about the situation. Often the best time is closer to moving day, when there is less chance for them to worry. Explain ways that you can keep in touch and practise ways of doing it (for example, Skype, emails or phone calls) before their friends or family members leave.
 
Toddlers and preschoolers love keepsakes, so perhaps swap photos and gifts so they can remember each other by. Also, reassure them that their other friends are still staying and not moving away. Explain to them that we may feel sad, but that there are positives too, such as the possibility of visiting on holidays. Be positive, as the more upbeat you are, the happier your child will be too.
 
Preschoolers, like adults, need to take time to grieve and cope with loss. It can be a slow, gradual process, but through understanding, empathy and gentle explanations, they can get through these difficult times.

Check out our other Hot Topics on: Image source: tgn.anu.edu.au
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