How Children Process Grief and How to Help Them
Medically reviewed by Nathan Greene, PsyD — By Nancy Lovering — Updated on February 21, 2022
If you and your child are experiencing a significant loss, they may not process it the same way as you.
Your child’s age largely determines how they may experience and process grief. The language and concepts most appropriate to discuss loss and hardship with a child also tend to vary based on the child’s age. Communicating clearly may help comfort a child who is experiencing grief. Although shielding information is sometimes necessary, this may lead to more stress for your child if they already suspect something is wrong. If you are also experiencing grief, it may feel overwhelming to support someone else through loss simultaneously. It’s OK to seek help from friends, family members, or a counselor to ensure your needs are being met as well.
How does grief affect children?
Your child’s age is one of the factors you may want to consider when determining how much information to share with them about an upsetting event. Even though children often can’t understand the full extent of a traumatic event, they can still experience unsettling emotions associated with grief.
It helps to remember that young people may grieve for a variety of reasons. In addition to a loved one’s death, they may also deeply feel the impact of:
- the loss of a pet
- saying goodbye to a friend who’s moving away
- grappling with the divorce of their parents
Grief and bereavement in children is sometimes a temporary experience that they get past, or it can linger and lead to mental health conditions like prolonged grief disorder. A wide range of factors may influence how long a child experiences grief. Research suggests that parents may play an important role in helping a child navigate difficult times.
For instance, a study published in 2021 evaluated grief in refugees and revealed that children experienced greater emotional difficulty when their parents were experiencing more severe grief.
How does grief change with age?
Regardless of age, grief can be upsetting. Becoming overwhelmed by emotions is a typical feeling that children experiencing loss may experience. How children respond to these feelings often varies by age group.
How toddlers grieve
Toddlers and preschoolers often have difficulty understanding the permanence or meaning of death. They may repeatedly ask for the loved one who’s died. They may also ask questions about death, like what it means to die and whether they or you will die, too. Although it may be difficult, the National Child Stress Network recommends answering all of your child’s questions as often as they’re asked. It tends to help if you give clear, simple answers. This is one way to help your child understand what’s happened.
Other common responses to grief in toddlers include:
- changes in sleeping or bathroom patterns
- temporary separation anxiety
- interest in new games or ways of play
Children tend to learn through play, so you may see your toddler pretend that their toys have died. This is a common part of processing, and it’s fine to let this play continue. Most likely, your child will move on to different games.
How children grieve
Children over 5 years old are generally more capable of understanding that death is not reversible. They may not believe that it will happen to anyone they know, though, and for days following the death, they may keep believing that the person will come back. If they’ve lost someone important in their daily life, anger is an expected reaction. They’ll also likely experience sadness that comes and goes, possibly over a long period of time.
Other typical reactions include:
- more aggressive play
- anger toward other family members
- regression in maturity (like bedwetting, baby talking, or increased neediness)
Starting a dialogue with your child about what’s happening and what they’re feeling can help, so that your child’s imagination doesn’t make the situation seem worse than it already is. For example, cremation and burial are two concepts that sometimes frighten a child if they don’t understand what death means. Younger children may also blame themselves for the death, so it can help to communicate and learn about their thoughts and worries.
How teens grieve
It’s common for teens to feel out of control when they experience a significant loss. This feeling may overwhelm or frighten them. The experience of feeling out of control may be mirrored through reckless behaviors like substance use. Other teens may be able to self-regulate and engage in healthy outlets like talking with friends or creating art.
The way a teen responds to grief may depend on various factors surrounding the death. These include:
- the cause of death
- who died (sibling, friend, parent)
- whether the teen has had previous experience with death
- the maturity level of the teen
Your teen may not want to talk about how they feel. Instead, they may withdraw from their typical activities and isolate themselves more than usual. You might notice increased irritability, both from the feelings they’re experiencing and from sleep disruption, which is another common effect of grief. It can be helpful to encourage them to talk about their feelings, but generally best not to force them. Sometimes it’s best to just be prepared to listen when they are ready to open up.
When to seek professional help
Certain signs suggest your child may benefit from grief counseling. They include:
- prolonged depression
- social withdrawal
- appetite loss
- loss of interest in daily activities
- wishing they could go with the person they’ve lost
- refusal to return to school
- suicidal ideation
Disenfranchised grief in children
Disenfranchised grief is when a person is denied their right to feel loss. In the case of a child, it might be a well-meaning adult sheltering them from events relating to the loss or not being honest about what’s happening. Sometimes disenfranchised grief happens when others don’t acknowledge or validate a person’s feelings because they don’t view the loss as very big. For instance, a parent who’s never had an online friendship may not understand how the loss of an internet friend impacts their teen. When the family dog passes and the parents continue with their responsibilities, they may not acknowledge a child’s need to take a day off school to grieve.
If your child is grieving, you can take several actions that may help make the process easier for them.
Offer unconditional acceptance
There are no rules for grief, and everyone experiences loss in their own way. The same is true for your child. If they seem unaffected when everyone else is upset but then several weeks later experience a delayed reaction, it can be helpful to let them know that this is OK. There is no set timeline for grief that everyone must follow.
After a loss, it’s typical to feel a wide range of emotions. Sometimes family members are irritable with each other or feel pushed beyond their limits. It tends to be easier to get through hard times if you directly communicate what you’re feeling. If you’re sad or tired, consider saying so and explain why. It can help to model to your child that it’s OK to have feelings. Consider spending time together doing activities they enjoy and show them it’s fine to laugh if they feel like it. These interactions may help remind your child that negative emotions don’t stay forever and that it’s OK to feel happy.
Model healthy coping strategies and self-care
It may help to think about some things you want your child to understand, such as:
- It’s OK to ask for help.
- It’s important to take care of yourself.
- It’s healthy to take breaks when you need them.
Consider modeling this behavior yourself. If you need help, ask for it and explain why. For example, maybe you don’t feel emotionally stable enough to go to the grocery store, so you ask a friend to run this errand for you. Self-care could be taking a nap or going to bed earlier at night. It could be taking the time to go for a walk in the fresh air or treating yourself to a nice meal. It may be helpful for your child to see you practice self-care, so they learn healthy coping strategies.
Provide stability with routines
Routines provide a sense of security because they’re predictable and familiar. In the days immediately following the loss, your schedule may experience some changes. Creating a new routine as soon as you’re able may help provide comfort to your child. This is because resuming your prior routine sometimes has an unsettling effect: It may make your child feel like the person they’ve lost has been forgotten.
Create rituals for remembrance
You may be able to maintain a feeling of closeness to the person (or animal) you and your child have lost by offering ongoing tributes to them. These tributes can take many different forms. A study from 2009, for instance, found that people tend to value the informal rituals they created for themselves over larger planned remembrance events. Informal rituals may help those who are grieving maintain a bond with the person they have lost and keep that person a part of their daily lives.
You and your child can maintain a connection with the person you have lost by:
- talking about them regularly as a family
- celebrating their birthday each year
- doing something special on the anniversary of their passing
- lighting a candle to honor them every evening
- making a scrapbook of memories
- listening to music or singing a song that reminds you of them
- reading a poem in honor of them every day, week, or month
Get some help
It’s common to feel a range of emotions — or sometimes none — after a significant loss. It doesn’t mean you’re not handling things well if you decide to ask for help. Your child may need more help than you can offer. This doesn’t mean you haven’t done your job as a parent. Loss is an exceptional situation that sometimes warrants the help of a professional. Treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help children and adolescents learn to manage their feelings. A 2021 studyTrusted Source featuring 134 children and adolescents with prolonged grief disorder demonstrated that CBT was more effective than supportive counseling at managing grief concerns like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and internalization of problems. Also consider spending some time browsing resources outside of the therapist’s office, such as books, blogs, support groups, and podcasts.
Children of all ages feel loss, just in different ways. Younger children may not fully understand the event surrounding a loss, but they still grieve. You may be able to help your child with honest, age-appropriate communication. It may also help to provide the security of structure and the healthy modeling of good self-care. Help is available if you need it — from counselors and support groups to reading material such as books and blogs. You’re not alone in this process of helping your child through grief.