Understanding Child Grief by age group

A Child's Concept of Death

Children are often referred to as “forgotten grievers”; sadly, this is all too often the case.  While a child’s grief should never be overlooked or undervalued, it is important to understand that it is different from an adult’s experience of grief.  Children grieve according to where they are developmentally on physical, mental, and emotional levels.  Consequently, it is important to speak to them in age appropriate language that takes into consideration their developmental level of understanding.  It is important to tell children the truth about death, however, it is equally important to remember that the words you use to speak that truth to a four year old are different than those you use to speak to a seventeen year old.  

Following are some useful developmental guidelines to keep in mind when helping grieving children.  Please bear in mind that these are only generalizations – each child is an individual and as such has his own personal experience of grief – however, these guidelines may help adults not forget the smallest of grievers.

And remember that at any age, a unique characteristic of children is their insatiable appetite for answers to their questions.  Children are especially interested in why death occurs and why it can’t be “fixed”.

Death Concepts of Children & Teens by Age Group


Infancy to Toddler Years

There is no concept of death

The child reacts to the emotions and feelings of the parents

The grief of others permeates their environment.

 

Reactions

Crying, Clinging

Regurgitation or vomiting

Regression in toilet habits

 

Interventions

Confront the behavior with professional help

Keep the routine as normal as possible

Physical reassurance through holding and talking to the child

From Three to Five

Not capable of abstract thinking

Children this age live mostly in the present – past and future are abstract concepts

They deny death as a normal and final process

They equate death with sleep.  In time the person will awaken

Death is measured in degrees – “kind of dead” to “real dead”

They begin to form a vague understanding of what death is, but they believe it only happens to other people

 

Reactions

May show little concern when told of a death

May regress to infantile behavior

Fears separation from significant others

Asks repeated questions about the person who died

 

Interventions

State the fact of death.  Do not use clichés

Keep explanations short and simple

Respond to their security needs

From Six to Nine

They have a clearer understanding of death

Comprehend that they too, can die

Begin to fear death; often see it as punishment

Realize death is final and people they love can die

 

Reactions

High anxiety – especially for the health & safety of remaining parent

Less willing to talk about death

Grief reactions ebb and flow

 

Interventions

Respond compassionately

Refrain from using clichés

Be responsive to their needs

Reassurance

Use art and stories to aid their expression of grief

From Ten to Twelve

View death not only as final but inevitable

Curious about the biological aspects of death

To hide their fear, they often joke about death

Not unusual for them to feel some responsibility for the death

 

Reactions

Separation anxiety and fear (temporary)

May lose some manual skills because they lack concentration (especially true in males)

Daydreaming; at school, grades may fall

This is the “fix it” age

Tend to emotionally distance themselves from adults

 

Interventions

Give compassionate answers to their questions.  Don’t be appalled or frustrated

Give them permission to vent their feelings

Listen attentively

Give an honest explanation of the death

Teenage Years

More adult processes are evident

They fluctuate between acknowledging death as final and wanting to believe it is just a rumor

They have feelings of immortality while at the same time realizing that life is fragile

To defy death, they engage in risk taking behaviour

 

Reactions

Assume the adult role, especially with younger siblings

Preoccupation with death

May attempt suicide as a gesture

Often show anger and aggression

 

Interventions

Encourage communication

Involve a trusted friend

Engage in loving confrontation when needed


Further suggested outside reading: ‘Helping Children Cope With Grief‘ by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. (source: centerforloss.com)