Helping Children Understand Sadness

Sadness, grief and loss are part of the human experience. From childhood through to adulthood, we are met with either our own experience of these emotions, or of those around us experiencing them. As parents, we tend to want to protect our little ones from these big emotions (and their causes), but by talking to them about these feelings and the various reasons they may occur, we can help them to become empathetic and emotionally intelligent people.

Children are extremely intuitive and are likely to notice when someone around them is upset. Whether they’re exposed to someone else’s sadness or grief at school, on the TV, or in their own family, they might feel anxious or confused if they aren’t equipped to recognise it and respond to it. It’s important for children to be in the know, even if the information is sad, rather than trying fill in the blanks for themselves.

3 Ways to Teach Your Child About Sadness

1. Don’t Hide Your Sadness from them

As much as you may want to shelter your child from your sadness for fear of worrying them, your own grief can be a good opportunity to introduce them to what grief can look like. Rather than trying to hide your pain, perhaps allow yourself to be open with it. It’s alright to cry in front of your little one, because crying is a natural response to sadness. Next time your child sees you cry, you can use the chance to let them know that people cry for many reasons, and that tears are a way to express pain or sadness and is a healthy way to process these emotions.

2. Help Them to Recognise Sadness in Others

The ability to recognise sadness in others, as well as learning to empathize with another person’s feelings is an important life skill for little humans to build.

You can explore this area of learning through:

  • Real life scenarios. If you’re out and about with your little one and you happen upon another child crying, (at nursery drop off, in the park, in a store, at the airport, etc.) you can discreetly help your child to identify the child’s emotions and point out how they might possibly be able to relate if they were in the same position.
  • TV/films/books. Almost all storylines contain characters who experience events that lead to big emotions – namely sadness. You can discuss why the characters felt the way they did and the ways in which they expressed their feelings.
  • Their own experiences of sadness. To help your little one draw a connection to someone else’s feelings, it can help to remind them of their own. This exercise can help build empathy and increase emotional intelligence. Example: “Remember how sad you were when granny died? That’s what Sarah is feeling right now.” If they don’t yet have their own experiences to draw on, you can can use those from their favourite films.
  • When talking through your child’s own feelings of sadness, you can include the concept that their friends and even adults have similar feelings when in the same situation. This can help your little to feel both reassured, as well as build empathy.

3. Help Them to Respond to Sadness in Others

Learning how to identify feelings of sadness in other people is important for building social awareness. Equally as important, is learning how to respond appropriately. Again, a helpful way to introduce this learning is by reviewing events in TV/Films/books, as well as past real-life events. You can discuss the many ways in which people/characters express their sadness (example: through body language, behaviour, use of words, etc.) and what might be the best way to respond in those situations. Role play is another great tool for giving your child the chance to put themselves in the shoes of somebody else and to think about how they would feel if they were in the same or similar situation. They can then use this empathy as a guideline when it comes to responding to sadness and distress in others.