How Can I Help My Child Grieve, Even When He Seems Unaffected By Loss?

Children's grief looks different from adults' grief.'s "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says that understanding a child's grief, and responding in several key ways, can offer the love and support necessary for a child to cope the best they can.

Illustration of parents looking at sad boy
Photo: Illustration by Yeji Kim

Good Grief

My stepson's mother just died and we found out this morning. I've known my stepson since he was 5 or 6. I started living with him when he was 7. His mom did not live nearby so he did not see her often, but they spoke on the phone weekly. She had issues with addiction and was not the best mom, but was still his mother and a part of his life. When we told our son he was sad momentarily but then seemed over it. What is the best way to help him cope with this news even though he seems unaffected by it?

—Good Grief

As a specialist in childhood grief, I have seen many confused adults dismiss or not attend to a grieving child because their behavior is often not what we expect. Not only can childhood grief look very different from adult grief, but the death of a biological parent who could not care for their child adds complication to the grief process. For your stepson, there is no way for you to "make it better," but you can undoubtedly serve as a source of support to make a big difference. He is fortunate to have a parent so invested in his emotional well-being and attuned to his needs.

Grief Is Not About Stages

I worked for years with children suffering serious and life-threatening medical illnesses, which involved supporting families going through the unimaginable: the death of their child. In this work, I met with many siblings managing this shocking loss in their lives, so what I share comes not only from well-researched information but from my own profound experiences.

Children and adults share this critical aspect of grief: each person's process is unique. There is no timeline for being "done" with significant grief. In fact, the stages many of us learned about do not bear out in real life like a stepwise process (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). Grief can operate more like a circle looping through thoughts and emotions, or like ocean waves, alternating between rising and receding. Once a person has been touched by a significant loss, life is never the same. There is no "back to normal;" the process becomes about discovering a new normal with that person no longer in the world.

Grief and Children

I remember once, at the request of her mother, telling a girl around the age of 6 that her brother was dying. Her mother wanted her to be prepared but could not bear to deliver the news herself. The girl held my hands, brown eyes staring steadfastly in mine, nodded her head that she understood, shook her head that she had no questions, and then ran off to play on the hospital playground. Similar to your stepson, children often act unbothered in the moment. In reality, they are coping in ways that fit their development.

Younger children often play as a way to process their grief, while older children may distract themselves with anything but a deep conversation with an adult, and teenagers likely escape into the social world of their peers to figure out what they think and feel. Even when a child does not "look like" they are grieving, they absolutely are, in their own way.

Children grieve differently from adults because they are still developing. As they proceed through their developmental stages, such as school-age to adolescence, the way they experience their grief changes as they change. For example, an adolescent's ability to think more abstractly and existentially than they did at age 9, can bring up new thoughts and emotions about mortality related to a death that happened many years earlier. Also, each milestone, like school graduations, or being celebrated for an accomplishment like a sports award, can bring up grief for their loved one not being present to celebrate.

What to Expect

Grief carries enormously complicated, intense emotions; a child's loss of a mother who was not fully available adds even more complexity. Your stepson will be managing this for the rest of his life. Some normal signs of acute grief (usually the first few weeks after a death) include:

  • Changes in sleep (possibly nightmares, difficulty sleeping, or sleeping more than usual)
  • Changes in appetite
  • Behavior and mood outbursts
  • Alternating between clinging behaviors, and withdrawn behaviors
  • Regression: acting younger than their age, possibly in ways that seek comfort
  • Holidays and birthdays are especially triggering for grief, so be prepared for extra emotion and TLC on those days, as well as each anniversary of the day of his mother's death.

What Parents Can Do

A child surrounded by love and support for their grief undoubtedly copes better. As a stepparent, you can show this love and support in some key ways:

  • Let him know you are there to listen when he's ready to talk; this allows him to make the choice about when he's ready, on his terms. "Being in the mood" to talk about it will likely fluctuate moment to moment, so be prepared.
  • Do not shy away from talking about his Mom. Grieving people often complain that others act as if their loved one never existed, which is painful. If he reacts negatively in the moment, empathize that it's fine that he's not in the mood, but communicate that when he wants to talk about his Mom, you will be there. Showing that you are comfortable talking about her gives him permission when the moment hits.
  • Maintain routine, with flexibility. Children who are grieving do benefit from continuing to go through their days as usual, like school and other activities. However, with the roller coaster of emotions, they may also need breaks. Grief is physically and emotionally exhausting, so it's okay to let them rest when they need to.
  • With your son and his father, come up with rituals to honor his mother. Rituals become an important part of the healing process. Whether it's planning to have her favorite dessert on her birthday, or writing her a letter on Mother's Day, having these rituals to count on can help your stepson feel connected to her memory.

I also wrote A Guide to Child Development and Grief with more details about what to look for at each age, how to respond, and when to seek more support.

Child Grief Resources

When it comes to childhood grief, it definitely takes a village. If you and his father access your own resources, you can be more equipped to best support your stepson. Helpful online resources include The Dougy Center and The National Centre for Childhood Grief, which include supports for children and their caregivers. Children often benefit from ways to connect with other children who have lost parents, whether in-person or virtually. Typically, in-person grief support helps the most several months after the loss, so take your time to research and find what might fit him best. For example, Comfort Zone Camp provides free camps in different parts of the United States for grieving children and families, or you can find a local group designed for his age.

The Bottom Line

Thank you for your commitment to supporting your stepson's grief. Please know that no matter his lashing out or withdrawal in grief-stricken moments, your loving presence and openness to his needs will keep him afloat through this tumultuous time. Although grieving his mother's death will never be "over," time and love does heal the rawness of his wounds. Having you by his side gives him a lifeboat to know he is not alone, and he will get through it.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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