Dealing with the loss of a family member or loved one can be a confusing experience for children. They might need time to comprehend what has happened or to recognize the permanence of their loss. Older children may have a more concrete understanding of what death is, but processing their emotions around it will still take time and care.
How can a parent or caregiver help carry some of this weight? And why is communicating with your child important in these situations?
Today, we’re tackling the subject of children and grief: how this complicated feeling manifests in kids and what we as caregivers can do to support them through it. We’ll explore how kids of different age groups commonly express grief and then discuss strategies for helping children process grief and loss.
Signs Your Child is Grieving
How your child reacts to what they’re feeling depends, in part, on their age and emotional development. Your young child may go from crying one moment to laughing and playing the next. This is normal, but it can be confusing for a caregiver wondering how to safely shepherd their child through early experiences with a significant loss.
To help your child process loss and develop healthy coping skills, we’ve put together a list of what to expect with childhood grief, organized by age group.
Ages 2 to 4
Most children at this age aren’t able to process the permanence of death. You may notice this manifest in children if they’re asking when a person will be coming back or if they’re struggling to understand why they aren’t around anymore. They may cycle between treating that loss as impermanent and experiencing bursts of intense emotion. They might also regress to previous behaviors such as thumb-sucking or bedwetting.1
Ages 4 to 7
Death may still be an abstract concept to children in this age group, which means they may engage in “magical thinking” that allows them to speculate that the person who died may become alive again.
They may also react in emotional ways such as:2
- Separation anxiety
- Withdrawal or lack of emotion
Ages 7 to 13
By this age, children are able to see death as permanent and may express interest in how the death occurred. They may focus on how others are responding to the loss and worry that death can happen to them and their family members.3
Other responses may include4:
- Problems at school
- Trouble focusing
- Sadness, denial, or anger
- Mild physical pain like headaches or body aches
Ages 13 to 18
Because teenagers have a much more concrete awareness of death, and may have even developed their own philosophies on why it occurs, their expressions of grief may be closer to what you would see in adults.
Possible behaviors of grief in this age group include:5
- Increased risk-taking
Keep in mind that teens may feel more comfortable talking to peers or friends outside the family for support. This is very common and we recommend encouraging them to do so.
How Can Caregivers Help?
Death is a natural part of life, yet many of us adults may not have been taught how to cope with or process grief, much less how to talk to kids about death. Helping our children learn strategies for dealing with loss can be both healing and rewarding. It can also be plenty of worrying: What if we say the wrong thing?
Rest assured that your time, care, and attention go an incredibly long way for your child during this process. Be honest, have faith in yourself, and try these tips for communicating with your child about grief.
#1 Try to Plan Your Response
Setting aside some time to meditate on, journal about, or think through how you’ll talk to your child about grief is a good way to prepare for that conversation. Just remember: There’s no right way to handle loss. Start by expressing your feelings about the situation to open up a sharing space.
While it may be tempting to put on a brave face and act like you’re fine, showing your child your feelings of sadness or dismay helps them understand that it’s okay to feel these feelings. Expressing your own emotions is a great healthy parenting habit and modeling physical closeness through snuggling or hugging is another good way to provide reassurance.
#2 Encourage Processing Through Play
Younger children may use play to act out their responses to grief, come to terms with the significance of death, or theorize about how it occurs. But don’t be alarmed if you see them processing by acting out death with stuffed animals or during playtime. While this can sometimes feel inappropriate, this kind of play is a healthy way for young children to process.
Even teenagers can benefit from physical activity while grieving—though they might not refer to it as “play.” One recent study showed that exercise during bereavement helped in ways such as:6
- Fostering a sense of freedom
- Facilitating the expression of emotions
- Providing a distraction or escape
- Enhancing social connections
Your child may experience bursts of energy followed by periods of lethargy. Establishing physical routines is one healthy way to help them process what they’re feeling.
#3 Encourage Processing Through Creativity
If your child doesn’t feel like hitting the playground or going for a run, that’s fine too. For thousands of years, humans have turned to art-making to help them express their emotions and make sense of the world. Your child may feel some relief from their sense of loss by engaging in activities such as:7
- Collage making
Beyond these tips, learn about other grief activities for kids you can try at home to support your family. Experiencing the grief process together can help foster a connection with your child as you both navigate challenging emotions.
Help Your Child Cope with Grief with Resources from Slumberkins
As caregivers, it’s never easy when our children struggle with tough parts of life. But we can help. By making sure that our children feel loved and supported during the grieving process, we help them adopt a healthy processing strategy.
If you need support initiating those conversations, Slumberkins is here for you. Our resources for grief support include stories, activities, and snuggly friends like Sprite to support the caregiver and child through the process. Reach out today and our team will be glad to help you.
- "Helping Children Cope With Grief." Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/guide/helping-children-cope-with-grief/#block_88b44244-283a-44b0-a191-e266c0171aee
- "Bereavement Reactions Of Children & Young People By Age Group." KidsHealth. https://www.kidshealth.org.nz/bereavement-reactions-children-young-people-age-group
- "Children's Developmental Stages Concepts of Death and Responses." VITAS Healthcare. https://www.vitas.com/family-and-caregiver-support/grief-and-bereavement/children-and-grief/childrens-developmental-stages-concepts-of-death-and-responses
- "Grief by Age: Developmental Stages and Ways to Help." Eluna Network. https://elunanetwork.org/resources/developmental-grief-responses
- "How to Help a Grieving Teen." Dougy Center. 12 November, 2020. https://www.dougy.org/resource-articles/how-to-help-a-grieving-teen
- Williams, Jane et al. “Can Physical Activity Support Grief Outcomes in Individuals Who Have Been Bereaved? A Systematic Review.” Sports medicine - open vol. 7,1 26. 8 Apr. 2021, doi:10.1186/s40798-021-00311-z
- Casabianca, sandra Silva et al. "How to Use Art to Help You Cope with Grief." PsychCentral. 6 June, 2022. https://psychcentral.com/health/grief-art-therapy#how-to-use-art-to-cope