Not talking doesn’t mean not grieving
Parents and carers’ fears
One of the most common concerns we hear when parents first contact the SeeSaw service is that their young person ‘isn’t talking about it’ [serious illness in the family, or bereavement]. This often leaves parents and carers ‘in the dark’ as to how their young person is coping and processing.
Whether facing terminal illness or dealing with an unexpected death, many parents and carers are concerned their young person is ‘in denial’, or that they haven’t understood what’s happening and/or the implications of a death, whilst others are worried their young person is trying to ‘be brave’ and power on by avoiding dealing with painful emotions. Not wanting – or being able – to talk about feelings is a very common grief reaction for many people, young and old, and is just as much a feature of anticipatory grief [grief associated with an expected bereavement] as with grief following a death.
Whilst it’s true that different ages and stages will have a developing sense of what their loss means over time, it’s also important to remember that ‘not talking’ does not equal ‘not grieving’. This is especially true for SEND young people, or those who have experienced trauma or anxiety and may have heightened ‘fight or flight’ responses. For all young people – but especially those who have experienced trauma – a sense of choice, control and safety will help them begin to open up. This article will share some strategies to support young people as they process a bereavement.
Can’t talk/won’t talk?
Whether preschool, primary aged, or adolescent, young people communicate much about their inner emotional state through their actions and presentation. Paying attention to young people’s non-verbal communication can reveal a lot about how they are coping. It can be worrying for parents and carers to witness their child becoming more withdrawn, to face dysregulated meltdowns, or to have efforts to engage teens seemingly dismissed with monosyllabic responses such as ‘fine’, ‘ok’ – or sometimes nothing more than a sigh or eyeroll – ‘If only they would talk about it!’.
But the word ‘would’ can be replaced with ‘could’: this offers a different perspective on the reasons why children and young people often can’t communicate openly and coherently about their grief.
For more information on children and young people’s common grief reactions at different ages and stages of development you might find it helpful to look at our support booklets for parents, carers, and young people.
Reasons young people might not talk about their grief emotions:
They don’t recognise what they are experiencing as grief
Some young people might not understand what they are feeling, or that it’s connected to grief. They may ‘act out’, expressing emotional pain (e.g. anger) through challenging or risky behaviours.
They aren’t ready to talk
Early grief can feel unpredictable and overwhelming; many young people need time to process and figure out their ‘new normal’ before – or immediately following – a bereavement.
They are protecting themselves
- Young people may be afraid talking will ‘open the emotions box’ with no clear strategies to close it again, leaving them feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed. Worrying about not being able to cope can be frightening.
- They may see keeping busy as a way to avoid dealing with difficult feelings; this is very normal and understandable and is a healthy strategy to use some of the time…
- They may feel uncomfortable witnessing or interacting with others’ grief – especially if carers’ or siblings’ expression of grief emotions is in contrast with how a young person prefers to process and communicate.
They are protecting you
Families often want to protect one another from challenging feelings and conversations; some young people might feel they don’t want to burden a parent who is deep in their own grief. They may take on a heightened sense of family responsibility to be helpful.
They don’t see the benefit in talking
‘What’s the point? It doesn’t change what’s happened/what’s going to happen’. Bereaved young people often make this connection, not understanding how and why talking about bereavement can support mental health and processing.
They don’t have the vocabulary or opportunity to start conversations
For some families and young people, talking about difficult feelings and situations is unfamiliar or uncomfortable: they don’t know how or when to start conversations, or may be dealing with difficult relationships. Lots of people lack the words to express how they are feeling. Adults taking the initiative can do a lot to support young people who might not know how to reach out.
How you can support communication with your young person
Normalise not wanting to talk
If your young person is reluctant, or talking about feelings is something that’s tricky for you, let them know that’s ok: ‘It’s completely understandable to not want to talk about it.’ Whilst it’s important to respect your young person’s need not to talk some of the time, below are some practical tips to help young people of all ages start to open up at their own pace.
Share the potential benefits of talking with a trusted person
You might say this: ‘One part of you may want to tell someone about your feelings, whilst another part might not want to, but dealing with things on your own can be really hard’. Show adolescents the SeeSaw film ‘You Are Not Alone’, found on this page.
“Just because it’s hard to talk about it, doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about”.
Encourage daily communication
Try to check in regularly, focusing on open questions that require more than yes or no answers, e.g. ‘What was the best/trickiest part of your day and why?’
Build in plenty of ‘problem free talk’
E.g. talk about and do normal, everyday things: this shows and reminds young people that it’s ‘ok to be ok’.
Communicate side by side
Talking is easier when actively doing something together: there is less eye contact, and an activity to keep hands occupied helps – this could be craft, cooking, gaming, or sports. Walks or car rides are also a good time to chat. Teens may sometimes find WhatsApp, Snapchat, or texts an easier way to check in.
Notice feelings and name them
Take opportunities to talk about feelings in non-personal situations: this might be on TV, or how a friend or family member might be feeling. Talking about a range of feelings in a neutral way helps teach young people to recognise and name them.
Work on emotion regulation strategies
Remind young people that emotions can be like waves: they don’t last forever, and it is possible to manage intense feelings and then feel calmer again. Think together about what might help manage difficult feelings. You might want to check out this article on emotion regulation.
Share useful information to help them understand what they might be experiencing
Starting with some general information about the range of possible grief emotions and what to expect can help young people recognise their own experiences and feel reassured without having to share or talk too much about themselves. Try looking at chapters 1-3 of our resource ‘Living after loss: a grief guide for young people’ for more information.
Talk about their special person
They might not join in at first, but young people will be learning it’s not a taboo topic, and that it’s ok to talk about it when they are ready.
Use books or resources to help support conversations
See our list of recommended resources.
Offer an alternative person/space
There are other safe people in a young person’s life who can support them, and someone neutral can often help a young person open up without having to ‘filter’ what they say for a parent or carer’s benefit. This could be an ELSA/pastoral staff in school, or a referral to SeeSaw. Helping your young person acknowledge and find space/time for grief emotions is key – this doesn’t always need to include you.
MOST IMPORTANTLY: Move at their pace
Respecting each young person’s emerging support needs and preferred communication style will ensure they feel safe, seen, and heard as they grieve. Regular check-ins without pressure or expectation – even if these don’t turn into ‘deep’ conversations – are a great way to let your young person know you’re thinking about them and care how they are. This helps reassure and rebuild a sense of safety for most grieving young people.