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
Toddlers (Less Than 3 Years)
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.
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
Preschool (3-5 Years)
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
How to help:
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
- 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)
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:
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.
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)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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