Helping Children Cope with Death and Illness


Children and adolescents sometimes must deal with chronic illness or loss. Whether it is their own illness, or the medical condition or death of a loved one, this reality can affect them in many areas of their lives. Although these are clearly very difficult and intense issues for a minor to have to experience, this age group, 0-18 years, can potentially be at a greater advantage to manage these events.

Children and adolescents by nature of their age are part of a surrounding system. They are cared for by adults, taught by teachers, and usually have other support systems such as sports coaches, extended family, or youth group leaders. These people can all serve as a support for a child experiencing illness or loss. These systems can also serve as a source of feedback to know if the child is struggling.

As a caregiver of a child in difficulty, it is important to provide a balance by taking special time to acknowledge and discuss feelings as well as provide the continuation of normal life routines and expectations. To ignore reality and hope this will protect the child from suffering is not practical.

Although children certainly have a more simple understanding of these concepts, they are aware of them none the less. Their fears and feelings should be discussed and validated. A sense of normalcy including discipline, routines and appropriate expectations should be encouraged. This provides a sense of safety and consistency to move forward. It also helps to avoid the potential of a child feeling that the stressor at hand is all consuming.

If the child is part of a tragedy such as the Boston bombing or the school shooting, or there is someone they directly know is part of the incident, dialogue with the child should be started right away.

If a child is protected from the events it is generally a good idea with young children to avoid discussing the events. If you are aware he/she has been exposed to such news then it is a good idea to have a discussion. Be honest, speak in simple language that does not exacerbate any fears, and address the fears they may bring up.

If the child seems to be suffering from depression, or exhibits more severe behavioral symptoms, it is always a good idea to seek professional help. Options include discussing concerns with a pediatrician and/or seeking more intensive interventions such as therapy, or specialized support groups for loss and illness. To find a doctor visit

By: Jaime Gardner, MD, Child Psychiatrist, Renown Behavioral Health