When Grieving Children & Teens Go Back to School

It seems almost impossible that it’s already time to gather books and backpacks and to recalibrate our bodies and minds to the new rhythms set by the school year. Once again, parents are facing uncertainty as to what the school year will look like due to the continued presence of the pandemic. The approaching school year can present a particularly difficult set of adjustments for grieving children, teens, and parents/caregivers.

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 grieving 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 the loss. And due to differing school experiences brought on by the pandemic, children and teens may find themselves together with peers for the first time since the death loss of their significant person. The concerns about who knows what, what to share, and how it will be received can add to the natural anxiety that comes with starting a new school year.

In addition, school teachers, counselors, and administrators might find themselves needing to support a grieving student and not know where to turn. School personnel may also have had their own experiences of grief during the pandemic and are working to manage their own feelings while also creating a safe and supportive environment for the students.

There are no easy answers and it may be somewhat different for each child and each situation. We would like to share a few important tips, however, 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 a very 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, remotely, or in the classroom. It may be useful to talk to the child or the teen about what the school will know and to consider having the child talk to the teacher before school starts or at the beginning so that the child or teen knows there is an ally.

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. 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 gestures, but these are important acknowledgments. At the same time, children and teens may not want this done publicly or too often. 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. Each child or teen is different, and depending on the nature of the death, the family situation, or the individual personality, some privacy may be necessary.

Be sure to listen.

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. Sometimes children do not want to talk at school or want a private space to do so in his or her own time. Checking in while also letting the child or teen take the lead may be a challenging, but necessary balance.

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, there may be behavioral changes. A student may act out or engage in behaviors that are harmful to themselves or disruptive to others. Other students may be quiet and withdrawn. 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. Any significant changes in behavior are worthy of attention, both in school and at home.

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. The Children’s Room offers support, guidance, and consultation to schools. Trainings and workshops on grief in general and in the schools are available. For more information, please contact [email protected]

 


 

Listed below are some additional resources we recommend on supporting children and teens heading back to school over the next few weeks.

National Alliance for Children’s Grief
Responding to Loss and Change Resource guide 
Guía de recursos para responder a pérdidas y cambios ( Spanish version)

Dougy Center
Back To School With Grief And The Covid-19 Pandemic

By Published On: August 18th, 2021Categories: College Students, News, Teens