What to Do When Bad Things Happen

Bad things happen; it’s inevitable. They happen to adults, and as much as we wish they wouldn’t, they will happen to our children. Bad things can be small or large in scope or size: from a failed test, a lost game, or a painful breakup, to the death of a pet, a family divorce, or a serious illness or death of a loved one.

Bad things may hit close to home and become intensely personal, with the power to turn a child’s secure, stable world upside down. Other tragedies, with a bit more distance – a school shooting in another community, a war-related bombing which takes innocent lives, or a death of a distant relative – can also trigger anxiety, sadness, and distress for children.

[Related: Tips for Breaking Bad News to Kids ]

Unfortunately we live in a culture that encourages us to ignore (or “get over”) difficult feelings as quickly as possible. But not honoring the natural feelings that may accompany a loss – sadness, anger, fear, guilt, confusion, hopelessness, and depression – can lead to a lifetime of painful unresolved grief. Teaching children how to handle smaller losses and unwanted experiences in a healthy way is the best preparation for them when a significant tragedy ultimately happens.

[Related: Dealing with Tragedies in the World ]

To some degree, we may be able to shield our children when bad things happen, but sooner or later unexpected loss or unwanted changes will happen to them. It’s important to teach children how to live through sadness (and other difficult feelings) and to trust that heartbreak and setbacks don’t last forever. Assuring them that with time they will heal, and though things have changed because of the loss, they can, and will, be happy again.

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1. Helen Fitzgerald, The Grieving Child, A Parent’s Guide (New York: Fireside Press Simon & Schuster, 2003).

2. Helen Fitzgerald, The Grieving Teen, A Guide for Teenagers and Their Friends (New York: Fireside Press Simon & Schuster, 2000).

3. John Welshons, Awakening From Grief (Makawao, HI: Inner Ocean Publishing, 2003)