For kids dealing with a death, "back to school" time can be tough. It's a return to routine, to peers who may or may not know that someone has died, and sometimes feeling alone in a whirlwind of homework and big expectations.
We might notice kids’ grief at school through increased fears/anxiety, difficulty getting up and out the door for school, grades dropping, difficulty concentrating, and trouble following the rules. Children and teens may go to a nurse’s office more often for things like headaches or stomachaches.
If any of this sounds familiar, here are some things you can do to help your kids:
Things to do before the school year or track-in starts:
- Walk the school. Get familiar with schedules, how cubbies/lockers work, where they'll have certain classes...
- Meet the teachers and school counselor—let them know about the death so they can help if needed.
- Learn the school day routine (e.g., we do morning work, then we have a bathroom break, then we go to specials, then it's time for snack...). For visual learners and kids under six, print out picture flash cards as a timeline.
- Start going to bed earlier and waking up at earlier to prepare for school hours
- Brainstorm some coping strategies to handle specific grief reactions
When school starts or tracks in:
- Be consistent with limit setting about homework and expectations. Limit setting helps kids feel safe and lets them know who's in charge and who will protect them.
- Make homework an automatic part of the after school routine.
- Honor your child’s fears and provide comfort.
- Practice deep breathing.
- Take a comfort object to school (e.g., a picture, worry stone, or piece of fabric/clothing that belonged to the person who died).
- Give “passes” to limit calls home.
- Help children understand symptoms of grief.
- Let them have a “mental health day” every once in a while.
- Schedule visits with a school or community counselor to help express feelings so they aren’t as much of a distraction.
- Check in with your own grief and build in time for self-care.
- If your child worries about things like, "What will happen to you while I'm at school?" or "Are you going to die, too?" this is a normal reaction. Provide reassurance and let them know if there’s a plan in place.
- If your child continues to have difficulty or has suicidal or self-harming thoughts or behaviors, seek out a mental health professional.
- Last, and most important, take it one moment at a time. Parenting is hard work. Remember: progress not perfection.
Good luck with back to school!