As the summer winds down and fall begins to arrive, transitions are happening all around us. Rejoining the rhythms of the school year represents big changes for all of us, but this time of year can present a particularly difficult set of adjustments for grieving children, teens, and parents. For parents and caregivers, sending a grieving child or teen back to school can bring up a wide range of emotions. Parents want their children to feel safe, and they may worry about their child stepping out the door and into a less sheltered, less understanding environment outside of the home. Children and teens may crave a return to the normalcy and safety provided by school routine, but they may also find that their peers often misunderstand the many conflicting feelings caused by their loss. School teachers, counselors, and administrators might find themselves needing to support a grieving student and not know where to turn. It can be a difficult time of year, and there are no easy answers. We would like to share a few important tips as we begin this transition back to school.

Communicate with the school.

Good communication between a grieving child or teen’s home and the school is an important aspect of a successful transition back to school. It is also important for grieving children and teens to know that adults at school know about the death and are available for support. Plan ahead with the student’s teachers and administrators in order to set clear guidelines for his or her support as the child or teen returns to school.

Acknowledge the grief.

If you are supporting a grieving child or teen, do not pretend as if nothing has happened or changed. Whether in your behaviors or your words, do not suggest that the child or teen should “get over it” or “move on.” A life-changing event has happened for the child or teen. Acknowledging the death is often one of the most important things you can do. Saying the name of the person who died and continuing to ask questions about the person who died may seem like small matters, but these are important acknowledgments. These acts help those who are grieving to maintain their connection to their person who died while also inviting the student to participate in and honor the individuality of his or her own grief journey.

Be sure to listen.

Especially at back to school time, when everything can feel so full of change and newness, children and teens need the full trust and stability of the adults in their lives, including parents, teachers, and administrators. After a death, adults should make room for a child or teen’s feelings, whenever they are ready to share them. Listen carefully to the student’s feelings and concerns. Many adults rush to connect with a grieving child or teen by saying things that may actually make him or her feel even more isolated or hurt. Saying things like, “I know how you feel,” or “It could be worse,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” negates his or her feelings by making assumptions about their feelings and beliefs without allowing room for the person to share his or her own experience. Instead, offer patient listening, without rushing to “fix” or take away the grief.

Adjust expectations.

Students who are returning to school after a death may struggle with schoolwork. The student may have a lot of trouble concentrating, which may affect the quality of his or her work; an inability to focus may also affect his or her ability to complete assignments on time, or even to complete them at all. Be sure to communicate with your child or teen’s teachers about what will help him or her most effectively. In some cases, this may mean a little extra time to complete an assignment; in other cases, it may mean a different kind of assignment altogether.

Set routines and boundaries.

Aside from academic matters, a student may act out or engage in behaviors that are harmful to themselves or disruptive to others. Even though expectations will most likely need to be adjusted in order to help a grieving student be successful, the rules still matter. A grieving child or teen still needs a sense of routines, limits, and boundaries, which help provide normalcy and a sense of safety when things feel chaotic. Adults supporting grieving children and teens should be sure to balance the flexibility of their expectations with the clarity of rules and consequences.

Of course, these are just tips and suggestions. Every grief journey is unique and brings with it different challenges. We hope you find a rhythm that works for you and that the transition back to school is as smooth as it can be.