How to help a child or young person

There are a number of things you can do to help a bereaved child or young person. This article covers what the following people can do:

Parents, carers and guardians

If you are the parent, carer or guardian of a bereaved child or young person and you too share the bereavement, it is important that whilst you are supporting your child or young person that you are being supported as well. The death of someone close is extremely painful and therefore you need to safeguard your emotional, mental and physical well being in order to support your bereaved child or young person.

If you share the bereavement ensure that you not only encourage your child or young person to talk about their feelings but that you talk to them about how you are feeling too. Don’t try to put on a brave face if this is not how you feel because your child or young person may try and emulate this and neither of you will be able to progress if you are not being honest with each other about your emotions and how you are coping and this can be problematic later on.

If you suspect that your child or young person is deliberately hiding their feelings in order to protect you, explain to them that they do not need to do this and encourage them to talk about how they truly feel rather than bottling things up to spare your feelings.

The death of someone close can plunge a family in to chaos and confusion and normal daily life can be turned on its head. This said try to keep your child or young person’s routines as regular as they were prior to the death, the structure of meal times, bedtime and the like are extremely important as they not only safeguard the physical well being of the child or young person but afford stability and security.

If your child or young person states that they want to return to school, college or work, let them. Don’t be tempted to keep them at home; returning to the normality of school, college or work will help the child or young person to progress though the journey of their grief. For further ideas please click on the section, Information for Schools.

If your child or young person has started to become violent against themselves or others do not be afraid to reinforce boundaries. Explain to the child that whilst you understand their frustration and anger it is not acceptable to hurt themselves or others.

If your child or young person states that they do not want to attend the funeral do not force them to. Likewise if your bereaved child or young person does want to attend the funeral let them, children and young people have a need to say goodbye as much as adults and if they wish to attend the funeral to do this or they wish to remain at home and say their goodbyes privately you should respect their wishes. Bereavement affects people in very different ways and therefore if your child or young person is displaying regressive behaviour such as bed wetting / soiling, baby talk or being a little absent minded don’t be too quick to chastise them, they are grieving and need support and love.

If you become angry, the bereaved child or young person will probably regress further and their grief will be further compounded. If you are concerned about your bereaved child or young person then don’t be ashamed to ask for professional help. Contact Cruse Bereavement Care or speak with your GP.

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Teachers, college tutors and associated staff

For a comprehensive overview of how teachers and schools can support bereaved children and young people please see our schools section.

In some circumstances, a teacher / tutor is the person a bereaved child or young person is most likely to turn to when they need to talk about their bereavement. This can prove particularly daunting if you haven’t had any experience of supporting a bereaved child or young person previously.

Communication with the bereaved child or young person’s family whilst supporting them is essential. The family or caregiver of the bereaved child or young person will have their own belief systems and thoughts on how the bereavement should be dealt with, their wishes must be respected.

Allow the bereaved child or young person to share their thoughts, feelings and concerns with you and provide support in a non judgemental way. Allow the bereaved child or young person to set the pace of any conversations pertaining to the death and ensure that you have set aside adequate time to facilitate such discussions so that you will not be called away whilst the child or young person is sharing.

Deterioration in the bereaved child or young person’s academic performance and behaviour may be observed, understanding and discussion is needed if this occurs. In the case of poor behaviour, particularly bullying or violence on the part of the bereaved child or young person, boundaries need to be reinforced and communication with the bereaved child or young person and their family / caregivers is vital.

If the child or young person is on school / college premises when the death of someone close occurs and it you are to inform them, great care is obviously needed. Ensure that you have a quiet room, where the likelihood of interruption is minimal, prepared before you locate the child or young person so that you can break the news confidentially and without distraction. Before you speak with the child or young person it is crucial that you have the consent of the family / caregiver to inform the child or young person of the death.

Ensure that you are clear about what information the family / caregiver wishes you to give to the child and that you know the facts about what has happened. Gently explain to the newly bereaved child or young person using language appropriate to their age and cognitive ability what has happened. The child or young person will probably display signs of shock (Common Responses to Death by Children and Young People,) therefore it is important that they are given time to digest what they have been told.

Try not to let the child or young person walk / travel home alone, but ensure that you and a colleague can take the child or young person home shortly afterwards.

Do not inform the child or young person’s peers and classmates of the death unless you have been asked to by the family / caregiver. Communication between the bereaved child or young person’s family and the school will be required in the aftermath of the death.

If you are going to be offering regular support to the bereaved child or young person when they return to school / college it is important that you receive support from the head of your department or similar colleague. Supporting a bereaved child or young person can be emotionally challenging and therefore you must safeguard your own emotional well being if you are to be able to support the bereaved child or young person efficiently.

If the death has attracted media attention (as can be the case when the death has been the result of gang related violence, suicide, manslaughter or murder) precautions must be taken to protect the bereaved child or young person from possible stigma, isolation or bullying from other classmates. The school / college heads, governors and form tutors will benefit from developing a plan of action detailing how to ensure that the school / college population understand what has happened (providing parental consent has been secured first), where pupils / students can access support and how the media are to be kept away from school / college premises.

Many of the children / young people will ask questions about the death therefore it may be useful to organise an assembly or meeting whereby children and young people can ask questions and give their thoughts rather than letting rumours and conjecture replace the facts. If you believe that the bereaved child or young person could be at risk of neglect or abuse following the death, it is vital that you inform your local Children and Families (Social Services) Office immediately.

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Secure Penal Units and Youth Offending Institutions (YOI)

For those professionals supporting bereaved children and young people who are detained by court order in YOI or secure units, a detailed care plan will need to be devised in order to safeguard the bereaved child or young person’s health and well being and the well being of other children and young people at the facility.

The personal officer allocated to the bereaved child or young person must be made aware of the death before he / she comes in to contact with the bereaved child or young person. The designated personal officer should be available to the bereaved child or young person as required and should monitor the child or young person for any changes in behaviour and mood. The personal officer should maintain a balance between offering support responsively and unwittingly marking the bereaved child or young person as a target for bullying from other inmates.

Communication between the day and night staff is essential to ensure that all the staff involved in the child or young person’s care are aware of the bereavement. It may useful to review the custodial regime of the bereaved child or young person to allow visits from family and access to support networks. A discussion with the Governor may be needed to negotiate the possibility of an immediate / next day visit from the family / caregiver. Once this has been granted efforts should be made to secure a quiet, private place to facilitate the visit, such as the chapel. This will allow the bereaved child or young person to show their emotions and talk about their feelings away from other inmates.

Boys can be particularly concerned about crying or appearing vulnerable in front of their peers so a visit must be convened some where free from view of the bereaved child or young person’s peers. If the bereaved child or young person is not able to cope with education sessions or similar activities, punishment is unbeneficial. It is more appropriate to allow the child or young person to be excused until they feel able to participate again.

For those bereaved children and young people who have been diagnosed with a mental health illness, a referral for onsite counselling and / or psychiatric review might be needed.

All staff involved with the bereaved child or young person’s well being should receive support from their managers and continual dialogue with the bereaved child or young person must be encouraged so that the latter not only has opportunities to discuss their grief but they understand what is happening with regards to visits and any changes to their custodial regime.

If the bereaved child or young person has a history of self harm or has attempted suicide in the past, extra caution will be required as he / she grieves. Twenty-four hour supervision incorporating five minute checks may need to become operational.

Other inmates should be informed of the death and arising circumstances only if you have expressly been given permission by the bereaved child or young person to do so.

The bereaved child or young person should be allowed temporary unlimited use of a telephone so that they may call family, friends and any support agencies that they feel might help.

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Youth workers and other agents working with children and young people

In many cases, particularly in adolescence, bereaved children and young people may find it difficult to share their feelings and emotions regarding the death of someone close with parents, caregivers and immediate family for fear of upsetting them. That is why the roles of the youth worker, activity group worker and any other workers involved with the child or young person, are vital following bereavement.

Some bereaved children and young people are more comfortable discussing their grief with a youth worker and it is therefore essential that such workers are trained to understand the core aspects of bereavement in children and young people and how to respond appropriately. The youth worker should be able to support to the child or young person whilst they are grieving without compromising professional boundaries.

Occasionally a bereaved child or young person may start to emotionally or physically cling to the youth worker, particularly if the support they have received from the latter has proved useful. It can be difficult to reinforce professional boundaries when a bereaved child or young person is suffering emotionally but if boundaries become blurred it can have dire consequences for both the child or young person and the worker.

The youth worker should encourage the bereaved child or young person to tell their family / caregiver that they are talking things over with them and in turn, the worker should encourage the child or young person to communicate with their family. It might be useful to have a colleague accompany you when you offer support to the bereaved child or young person so that in your absence, the child / young person still has someone whom they know is available to talk to.

Although changes in behaviour and mood are natural following the death of someone close, sometimes a bereaved child or young person may start behaving in a way that is destructive towards themselves or the wider community. If you witness this you need to speak with the child or young person directly and inform their family / caregivers.

If you feel the bereaved child or young person is becoming too attached to you, discussions with colleagues and managers will be required immediately. You will also require support and opportunities to share how you are feeling with your manager or supervisor whilst supporting a bereaved child or young person.

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