Fears and Worries - How to Help Grieving Children and Teens

For many, this time of year is associated with scary creatures and things that go bump in the night. Costumes and decorations display images meant to spark shock and fear. For those in grief, especially children, this time of year can exacerbate the fears they already carry day to day. What grieving children (and adults) worry about after experiencing a death can be as unique as they are.

Common fears and worries include:

  • Someone else they love getting sick, hurt, or dying
  • Something happening to them
  • Money and finances (housing, sports, family trips, school)
  • Who will take care of them if something happens to their caregiver(s)
  • Telling new people that someone in their life died
  • Forgetting details about the person who died
  • Being seen as different or broken by friends or colleagues
  • Not being as capable or productive as before the death
  • Future events without the person who died (graduation, marriage, having kids)
  • In the case of a murder, fear the perpetrator will come after them or their family

If you are supporting a grieving child or teen, you may or may not know about their fears, depending on how private they are about them. You might also see other fears seemingly unrelated to grief grow more intense. A child might be afraid of the dark, sleeping alone, being away from their primary caregiver, going to school, or sleeping over at a friend’s house. Many of these fears and worries are connected to a sense of life being unpredictable. When someone dies, it can come as a shock, leaving everyone unsure of what will happen next. Re-establishing predictability is one of the best ways to reassure children. Talk with kids and teens about existing routines and rituals for meals, bedtimes, school work, chores, and playtime. Discuss which ones they want to keep and ask if they have ideas for creating new ones. Another idea is to have a family meeting or some one-on-one conversations about fears and worries. There are lots of ways to approach these talks. You could put out a big piece of paper and markers and ask everyone to write or draw their fears. Then invite them to circle the ones they want to talk about. If kids are feeling especially shy around the topic, you could start with making guesses about their worries. This is a great time to bring in some humor and lightness by guessing some outrageous fears first - I guess you are worried about a huge mountain of spaghetti falling on our apartment. I guess you worry we will get so many casseroles from friends that we won’t eat anything else for a year! - before easing into more serious ones.

Once you’ve helped kids identify their fears, it can be helpful to do some safety planning together. Even though some of their fears will be things you can’t ensure won’t come true (someone else dying, someone getting hurt or sick) you can work together to outline what you would do individually and as a family if something were to happen. This is a good time to ask kids for their input on a safety plan and let yourself be surprised by their answers. Some kids feel comforted and protected by pictures of the person who died or items that belonged to them. Seven-year-old Tristan set up a “Mommy Corner” he could go to when he felt scared. In his “Mommy Corner” he put a special framed photo of the two of them, her softball glove, and her favorite coffee mug that he remembered her carrying every day when she drove him to school. For other kids, having tangible information written down in a place they can access eases their anxiety. Billy, who was 10 when his brother died from choking, wanted a list of important phone numbers to put on the table next to his bed. He liked knowing there were a number of people he could call for help in a crisis.

As a parent or caregiver, being present with your children’s fears can be difficult. Our instinct is often to quickly dismiss their worries because we want them to feel safe and comfortable. Being willing to have these conversations with kids and teens, knowing that you won’t always be able to take their fears away, might require you to take care of yourself before and after. Take a few deep breaths, do some movement, journal, call a friend, or eat a nourishing meal. Choose whatever helps you bring a sense of groundedness, curiosity, and creativity to the process.

For more ideas, be sure to read our Tip Sheet: Helping Children and Teens Cope with Fear After a Death.