Understanding Children’s Unique
Reactions to Grief
Children grieve, but their reactions are different from adults. Often they experience grief in small amounts and for brief periods of time. They may be sad or crying one minute and happily playing the next. Children have short attention spans and are easily distracted from grief episodes. They can become emotionally overwhelmed with extensive periods of grief so they tend to “dose” themselves with small amounts of grieving at a time.
This can result in longer periods of grief for some children. According to the Harvard Child Bereavement Study, about 20% of children are “delayed grievers” and may have significant grief symptoms two or more years after the loss of a loved one. This is perfectly normal.
Age and developmental stage greatly affect children’s grief experience and behavior. There are, however, some common traits across age groups. These can include:
- Denial: Pretending or wishing the loss did not occur or acting as if they are unaffected.
- Sadness: Crying constantly, at intervals, or not at all. They may have varying degrees of fatigue, hyperactivity or withdrawal.
- Fear: Frequently showing concern about death, particularly of their own loved ones; expressing concern about their welfare and future caregiving; seeking contact and reassurance; clinging.
- Anger: Toward others, self, God, and the one who died; this anger may be hidden or expressed through words or behaviors. There may be increased sibling squabbles.
- Guilt and Self-Blame: Wishful thinking (if only…); regret; asking the same questions repeatedly to gain reassurance and relief; secretly blaming themselves.
- Regression: Returning to earlier level of functioning (bedwetting, seeking forgotten security blanket); usually turns around quickly with reassurance and the absence of criticism or judgment.
- Health or Sleep Changes: Minor health complaints; change in appetite, bad dreams, changes in sleep patterns, fear of sleeping alone.
- Protection of Parents: Children can act like little adults and may hide their grief in order to comfort and nurture the parent.
- Insecurity: Refusing to go to school; increased possessiveness.
These are general reactions. Children may exhibit one of more of these symptoms.
Age-Specific Reactions to Grief
Infants and Toddlers
Although not developmentally mature enough to understand the concept of death, infants and toddlers can be affected by it. They can read facial expressions and sense the emotions of the people around them. Their grief is expressed behaviorally. For example, they may cry more than usual and be difficult to comfort or soothe. Sleeping and eating habits may change. Separation anxiety may make toddlers “clingy.” There may be behavioral regression such as bedwetting or wanting a bottle or pacifier.
Infants and toddlers depend on non-verbal communication. It is important to comfort a grieving infant or toddler. Pick them up when they cry, talk and smile at them as much as possible; hold and carry them. Don’t worry about “spoiling” the infant or toddler. It is important to meet the needs of a grieving infant or toddler quickly and with love.
Ages 3 to 7
Children in this age range see death as a temporary, reversible condition — similar to sleeping. They believe that a person can be dead for a while, but then come back to life. They do not understand the permanence of death.
Parents may find it challenging when their child repeatedly asks when the deceased person is coming back. Children will often express grief through play rather than words. Children of this age also tend to be sad when they see the adults in their family being sad. Children may not be used to seeing parents grieving and they may feel bad for the parents.
Ages 8 to 11
Children in this age group are beginning to recognize death as final and permanent. They are starting to have the ability to mourn and understand mourning. They may have a lot of questions and want details about the death. They may be concerned with how others are responding and whether they are reacting the right way.
They may feel angry, which can lead to behavioral problems with others. Or they may believe they are responsible in some way for the death. It may be seen as punishment for bad behavior or bad thoughts.
Death may lead to feelings of shame or uniqueness. This can lead to withdrawal or isolation from others. Conversely, children may become overactive to avoid thinking about death. They may have problems staying focused in school and completing homework.
Ages 12 to 18
The teen years can bring complex reactions to death. Some teens act as if they are not affected at all. Some accept logically that the death happened, but then pretend that it didn’t.
Guilt and anger can be common experiences for teens. They wish they could have done something to change what happened. Some teens blame themselves for the death or have a strange feeling of being responsible for it. They may be angry at the one who died, their family or even God. This anger can lead to more arguments with family members and friends. Others turn that anger toward themselves and feel ashamed, or worse, feel like hurting themselves.
Their safety and that of others becomes important. Teens sometimes try to protect their family because they know that other family members are hurting too. They may feel they should hide their sad feeling for their family’s sake in order to comfort them. Risk taking or acting out behaviors may increase as a way to challenge death.