Understanding Grief in Children: What to expect & how to help
Grief is a universal emotion. Everyone will grieve something or someone in their lifetime. 1 in 5 children will experience the death of someone close before they turn 18. When a child is grieving, the adults in their life may be questioning what to expect and how to help. Many ask, “Is this normal?” While there is no one way or correct way to grieve, there are concepts of death and common grief responses in children according to their age and stage of development.
Children Under 2: Babies have no understanding of death. Infants can experience a sense of abandonment if a caregiver dies. From about 8 months, infants and toddlers may cry more, become withdrawn, lose interest in toys and may call out for the person who died. You can help children this age by offering lots of reassurance and keeping regular routines as much as possible.
Preschool Age (2-4): Children this age begin to develop an awareness that dead is different from being alive. They do not understand abstract concepts like forever and do not grasp the permanence of death. They may continue to ask when the person who died is returning. They may have disrupted sleep, changes in appetite, less interest in play, regression in language and toilet training, or may become more anxious about separation. You can help children this age by remembering they are concrete thinkers. Avoid using phrases like “gone away” or “gone to sleep.” Use the words death and dead. Be honest and share appropriately to their age. More details can come over time.
School Age (5-7): At this age children will develop an understanding that death is irreversible and permanent. They begin to acknowledge the person will not be returning. The magical thinking at this stage can have some children think their thoughts or actions caused the death. As they become aware that death happens to all living things, they may become anxious about their own and others’ health and safety. Continue to answer questions honestly and reassure the child that they are not the cause of the death.
Tweens (8-12) and Teens (13+): Grief impacts the developmental task of moving from dependence to independence. It can be difficult for a child to seek support while trying to assert their independence. Grief can be extremely isolating. They may be withdrawn or begin acting out. One way they may cope with their knowledge of their own mortality is engaging in risky behavior. Finding support from peers with similar experiences can be very powerful. Experience Camps, founded in 2009, is a national, no-cost program for grieving children who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver. Their programs, which include a one-week overnight summer camp, help to reframe the experience of grief and empower kids with the necessary coping skills to move forward with their lives. Go to ExperienceCamps.org for grief resources and to learn about their programs.
Often the people who are supporting the grieving child are also grieving. Self care is always important and when you are grieving it becomes absolutely necessary. WhatsYourGrief.com offers support and resources. You can also make an appointment with a counselor who specializes in grief. Here at Gooding Wellness we have several grief counselors and one who specializes in working with children who are grieving. We are here to help you move forward with less pain.
The Dos of Supporting Grieving Children:
1. Do offer lots of reassurance and try to maintain their regular schedules
2. Do be honest and share details appropriate to their age and development
3. Do use the words death and dead
4. Do reassure the child they did not cause the death
5. Do take advantage of resources in the community, such as information, counseling or camp
6. Do ask for help if you are unsure of how to handle questions or situations
7. Do model good self care habits by taking good care of your own physical and mental health
Written by Julie Keffer, MHC-LP