Helping Your Middle Schooler Cope with Loss

Children who are nearing adolescence will have a greater understanding of the concepts associated with death, such as the irreversibility of death and the potential causes. They will also begin to formulate thoughts about how the loss of a loved one will impact their future. The “What if’s” become more apparent at this age.

Developmental Understanding

Children in the 10- to 12-year-old range understand the finality of death and the biological and environmental causes that can lead to death. There is still a tendency to feel that one’s own thoughts, words or actions caused the death, but after a discussion with a caring adult, children are more likely to recognize the flawed logic behind feelings of guilt. There is a significant awareness of death as a recurring thing, and fears about when another loved one will die will become more prevalent. Children of this age are beginning to recognize the impact a death will have on their own future, such as a loved one missing out on milestones like graduations and weddings. Thoughts about the spirituality associated with death or related beliefs will also be prominent, whether this is present within the family or not.

Emotions and Behaviors

Common emotional reactions to the death of a loved for children of this age include shock, sadness, confusion, fear, worry and anxiousness. Guilt related to self-blame, especially over a perceived “mean” final interactions with the loved one, is common. Middle schooler’s also have a tendency to blame the deceased for abandoning them, leading to feelings of anger and vulnerability. Because peers play such a key role in your child’s functioning at this age, if your child’s friends have not had similar experiences, your child may feel lonely or isolated without anyone of their age to relate to on the subject. Regressive behaviors are common, as are fluctuating moods; oftentimes, the emotional distress caused by the death of a loved one is exacerbated by physical changes occurring in your child’s typical development at this age. Youth may try to hide their feelings or act as if the death never happened, especially if guilt or self-blame is present. Aggression may occur as an outlet for anger and confusion, or withdrawal due to feeling misunderstood and alone. Nightmares and sleep disturbances are common. Concentration is likely to decreases temporarily, and a decline in your child’s academic performance may be a consequence.

How to Provide Support

Expect that mood swings will occur; accept them with reflective statements validating how your child feels, and physical comfort such as hugs. Allow temporary regressive behaviors to occur, such as wanting to sleep with the light on or carrying around a favorite stuffed animal. Encourage your middle schooler to express his or her feelings through various means, such as talking, journaling, drawing pictures or writing songs, and make time available to talk with your child and listen to his or her concerns. Do not immediately focus on comforting or arguing logic with your pre-adolescent; instead, just listen, validate and answer the questions that are asked in an honest manner. Allow healthy outlets for excess energy associated with anger or anxiety, such as sports. If your child does not have friends who have experienced the loss of a loved one, consider enrolling him or her in a youth support group to help normalize emotions and thoughts around the loss. Give your child the opportunity to decide how and when to be involved in the mourning process, and be willing to help your child think of “outside the box” ways of coping if the traditional ways do not feel like a good fit. For example, if your child does not feel up to attending the funeral, maybe he or she would like to create a video collage of the deceased and invite other family members to view it in an email.



About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.