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There are multiple factors that affect the way children grieve. Developmental age is one factor that may influence children’s behaviors. Based off developmental age and what that brings, we have some suggestions for adults to consider when their child or a child they know is experiencing grief. Some recommendations are universal across ages, such as the inclusion of infants, children and adolescents at funerals. Conversely, it is the right of the child to say no to attend the funeral. Choice, in almost all cases, is essential for grieving children.
Regression is also typical amongst all age groups, but is most typical during the toddler years and early childhood. Regression includes bedwetting, thumb sucking, using baby-talk, or other behaviors from earlier in their life. This is normal. Children who have lost a parent, sibling or other family member feel like they have less or no control over their world. One way to help your child regain a sense of control is to allow them to openly communicate their feelings. If your child is experiencing regression at school, it may be helpful to talk to their teacher to create a plan so the child feels safe and supported in their classroom.
All children and adolescents may experience “grief bursts,” which are strong outward displays of emotion related to a loss. Grief bursts can be based in any emotion – sadness, anger, confusion, anxiety, loneliness, disappointment, regrets, or any other feelings. It is normal and ok to have grief bursts. Children and adolescents can use playing, talking, writing, drawing or other forms of expression to cope with intense feelings.
Below are generalized responses to grief based on developmental age. For more detailed information, or to discuss specific experiences, please contact Imagine at (908) 264-3100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Infancy– Infants do experience loss, yet it is felt primarily as abandonment. They may express feelings of irritability, distress, and fear of abandonment. These feelings are exhibited in changes in crying, bedwetting, eating, and sleeping. It is recommended that adults increase the amount of time spent with the infant. Consistency is also important; adults should not come and go, but rather, be a reliable presence in the infant’s life.
Toddlers (ages 1-2)– Toddlers are in an in-between stage of development. They are no longer infants; they can communicate using some words, but they are not fully capable of using words to express their feelings. Toddlers’ grief is outwardly exhibited through crying, sadness, anger, separation anxiety, and confusion. They may have questions about the person who died – “Where daddy?” or “When mommy coming home?” Answers should be honest and not confusing. Toddlers primarily mourn through play, but they may also talk, draw pictures, or write stories. Adults can support healthy mourning by reading picture books about death, dying and grief with their children. Most importantly, toddlers need safe and secure environments that promote healthy communication.
Early childhood (ages 3- 5) – During this stage children are beginning to understand aspects of death, but do not have a concrete understanding of death. They may think that death is temporary. Cognitive development is still underway, and because of this it is typical that children will ask many questions about death and the person who died to try to understand what has happened. Adults can help children understand the permanence of death by explaining what happens to a body after it dies.
Children usually feel sad, angry, frustrated, abandoned or confused. They may also feel relief or even happiness. As with any age, all feelings are normal reactions to grief. They may also experience magical thinking, which for grieving children means that they feel responsible for the person’s death or that they can change what happened. It is important to validate the feelings behind magical thinking, but to also be consistent with honest answers. Children may also react with bursts of anger, which can cause frustration for adults. Teaching children how to deal with anger in a safe way is key. They can write, play, create a scream box, or tear up used paper to get out anger. Adults can also support healthy mourning by reading picture books about death, dying and grief with their children. Using the correct language is very important at this age to help children understand what death is. Saying “Daddy went to heaven” does not help a child know that the person cannot come back. It is recommended that adult use the word “died” instead of “passed away” or “we lost dad” which can be interpreted by toddlers very literally.
Middle childhood (ages 6 –9)– During middle childhood children may still confuse death and sleep, but the permanence of death is beginning to take hold. Still, children will need guidance from adults, including honesty and openness. Many adults confuse children by providing overly-detailed medical explanations. Avoid overloading children with too much information. Giving age-appropriate amounts of information will help children absorb and process death, and they will ask questions as they grow and understand death in new ways. Answer questions directly and offer your on-going support by telling children that they can always come to you with questions or to talk about their feelings.
Encourage children to find an outlet for intense emotions. Children may be learning about poetry, story-telling, or other forms of written expression in school, which are all ways to process grief and build resilience. They can also help create family traditions such as rituals for anniversaries, birthdays or other important events. Feeling included in decisions helps children stay connected to the person who died. The person has died, but the relationship hasn’t.
Pre-adolescence (ages 10-12) – In pre adolescence children are able to understand the permanence of death and that death can happen to anyone they know, including themselves. This can cause a lot of pain and fear, which may in turn cause them to be less focused in school, lose interest in activities, and have somatic symptoms such as stomach aches. They may also have many questions about the person who died, which will need to be answered honestly and promptly. Avoidance can cause additional fear, particularly because they are aware that death is universal. They may be ready for more information about the death, but also seek assurance that they are safe and their other family members are safe.
Pre-adolescents may need tender encouragement to be open with feelings. Gently remind children that they are welcomed to talk to you or another adult, but do not force children to talk. Adults can promote openness by appropriately sharing their own feelings.
There are many ways to express grief. Pre-adolescents may want to utilize journaling, reading, listening to and playing music, or exercising or playing sports to deal with grief.
Early adolescences (ages 13 – 15) – During early adolescence, teenagers begin to shift away from childhood and towards adulthood. Their understanding of death, and their response to death, is similar to an adult’s; however, younger teenagers tend to have less coping skills than older teens and adults. It is important to remember that although a young teenager may seem okay, resilience and coping skills must be fostered through supportive relationships. Young teenagers naturally pull away from adults throughout this stage. Still, they need adults to remain present in their lives, especially their parents or surviving parent. Research shows that children and teenagers need at least one stable adult in their lives who they can turn to. This adult may not be the teenager’s parent; young teens may find it is easier to talk to other adults, such as extended family members, teachers, coaches, or support-group facilitators.
Grief is experienced physically and emotionally. They may feel angry, sad, alone, confused, disbelief, or even relief. They may have difficulty concentrating in school, lose interested in activities and isolate themselves from friends and family. Many things impact grief, such as the teen’s temperament, the relationship they had with the person who died, the way the person died, and family functioning style. The risk of unsupported grief varies from teen to teen. Teens may turn to unhealthy coping skills, such as substance abuse or self-harm, if their grief is unsupported.
Late adolescences (ages 16 – 18)– Late adolescence almost resembles adulthood, but differences still remain apparent. In particular, older teens may need more support to learn healthy coping skills, such as open communication and emotional expression.
Unlike young children, teenagers have the words they need to express their grief, yet they may not want to initiate conversation with adults. It may be helpful to start conversations by validating feelings, sharing your own feelings, and emphasizing confidentiality. Be honest when answering questions. If you are the teenager’s parent, guardian, or primary caregiver, you may be surprised that the teenager does not want to share their feelings with you, but rather feels more comfortable talking with a peer. Likewise, teenagers may feel much closer with the primary adult in their life and start to feel protective of the surviving parent. A desire to “step up” may be a form of resilience, but may also be a way to hide one’s vulnerable feelings. Remind your teenager that it is okay to cry, feel sadness, and share one’s feelings.
Older teens may want to attend a peer-support group so they can meet other teens who have gone through a similar situation. While every teen is different, looking for groups that allow teenagers to guide the conversation and talk when they want to talk may be helpful, as it gives them control to tell their story in their own time.
Children, no matter their age, can benefit from meeting other children who have had similar experiences. Joining a peer-support group can increase resilience, empathy and healing.
For more information about Imagine’s free peer-support groups, please call (908) 264-3100 or email email@example.com.