Age Specific Guidelines

Grieving children...How to help them

Children of all ages grieve. They just do it in a different way than adults. They experience sadness, anger, guilt, fear and anxiety. Even very young children can sense that the household is in turmoil and are affected by the tragedy in a very real sense.

Toddlers (Less Than 3 Years)

Grieving children...

Toddlers may sense a loss, may miss their deceased mother, but they cannot grasp the concept of death. They don't understand the difference between a short absence and permanent loss.

Symptoms of grieving toddlers: frequent crying or acting out; irritability or fussiness; clinging to caregiver; changes in eating/sleeping habits; regression to thumb-sucking or prior toileting habits.

How to help:

  • Try to maintain normal routines and familiar surroundings, as much as possible.
  • Provide consistent caregivers who are able to provide plenty of loving care, including hugs.
  • Give simple, consistent and honest explanations regarding the death, appropriate to their level of understanding. Do not lie or use euphemisms. ("Mommy went to sleep") Even toddlers must be told that "Mommy died and won't be coming back". Oh, so tough to do, but necessary.

Preschool (3-5 Years)

Grieving children...

Preschoolers usually think death is temporary and reversible, merely a separation. They may ask again and again when Daddy is coming home. They may show fear at being alone or may refuse to go to day care. They generally act out, as they are not really able to express their emotions verbally yet. They may throw temper tantrums and regress to more immature behavior. They may even feel that their thoughts or feelings caused the death (magical thinking).

Grieving Children

How to help:

  • Explain death in simple and direct terms, providing only details they are able to comprehend. They think very literally, so don't use euphemisms like "went to sleep" or "the angels took her". Instead explain what really happened, that the body no longer works, and use the word "died" or "death".
  • You may need to repeat explanations over and over, as they often ask the same questions again and again.
  • Make sure they understand they were in no way responsible for the death by their thoughts; "magical thinking".
  • Tell them they will not be abandoned, but will continue to be loved and cared for.
  • Strive to provide consistent and familiar caretakers and daily routines.
  • Be patient with regressive behavior; it should be temporary and improve with time.

Middle Childhood (6-9 Years)

Grieving children...

Children at this stage may have a more clear idea of the concept of death, but they may still confuse death with sleep. They have no concrete understanding of the finality of death, and find it hard to separate death from life. They see it as something that happens to old people. They focus on how the death event impacts them, and they may fear for their own safety.

How to help:

  • Discuss the death, using the proper words "died" and "death". Provide only simple explanations in response to their questions. Tell the truth but don't overwhelm them with details they did not ask for.
  • Acknowledge the importance of their feelings and encourage crying and other expressions of grief.
  • Encourage discussion and let him know he can ask any questions at all and get honest answers from you (even about "unmentionables").
  • Let them participate in memorial or commemorative activities and projects whenever possible.

Preteens (10-12 Years)

Grieving children...

At the age of 9 or 10, children begin to fully understand the finality of death. They may worry about their own personal safety. The death scares them, as they have just started to understand their own mortality. They may have trouble concentrating and do poorly in school. They may ask many specific questions about the death, the body, and/or bereavement rites and rituals.

How to help:

  • Talk openly and honestly about the death and the body, providing specifics as they are asked for.
  • Let them feel safe crying or expressing their grief to you. Share your own feelings of grief with them. It's okay to cry with them.
  • Encourage expressions of grief through journal-writing, art, poetry, and music.
  • Let the child create his own plans for a memorial celebration or special planting, how he wants to say goodbye.


Grieving children...

Teenagers perceive death in much the same way adults do. However, they may react in a dramatic manner, by misbehaving or acting out. They may engage in dangerous activities in an attempt to defy death. The teenage years are already hard on the child, without the added burden of significant grief. Teens may have suicidal thoughts and see death as a romantic thing.

Peer influence is so important at this age that teens may resent or feel embarrassed about the death, because it impacts their normal comfortable social life. These stressors may lead a teen to feel "different" or isolated from their friends. Teens may deal with this by trying to distract themselves or by "turning off" their grief. They may act as if nothing has happened when in reality, they are torn up inside. It may be hard to draw teenagers out and get them to express their grief in a healthy manner.

How to help:

  • Don't force a teen to talk about the death or grief, as they normally are reluctant to talk to adults. 
  • You may initiate a discussion by "going first" with how you feel about the death.
  • Talk openly and honestly about it, while letting her know that no subject is off limits.
  • Be a good, nonjudgmental listener. Acknowledging his grief without criticizing helps gain trust.
  • Let her know it is perfectly normal to cry, and feel extreme sadness, guilt and regret.
  • Contact bereavement support groups or a teen retreat if the child wants to participate. Peer group support can be most helpful for teenagers.
  • Alternatively, encourage him to try a grief forum on the internet.
  • Invite him to create or participate in a memorial ceremony commemorating the deceased.
  • Artistic activities which may be very helpful for teens: creating memory boxes or quilts, journaling, writing poetry or songs, or scrapbooking.
  • Watch carefully for any signs of serious suicidal tendencies or depression that worsens over time.

Return From Grieving Children to Help The Kids


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