How a child's developmental stage impacts their grief

By Cindy Burdette, MA, LPC, CHP-SW

"If a child is old enough to love, a child is old enough to grieve.”

Very young children, from birth to 2 years, have little understanding of death. They are aware of the absence of their loved one and may miss them. They may exhibit crying, sleeplessness and anxiety. Some good ways to help a very young child is to maintain their routine, meet their immediate physical needs and provide cuddling and reassurance.

Children from about 3-5 years have some understanding of death, but usually not the permanence of death. They seem to have magical thinking that somehow the person will come back from death. They will often exhibit regressive behaviors and ask repetitive questions. Some ways to help children in this group include all the things mentioned for the younger group as well as making sure you answer questions simply and truthfully and as many times as they need to ask them.

Children from 6-9 years old typically understand that death is final. They tend to be interested in the biology of death and whether their thoughts, words or actions could have caused the death. They will often ask detailed questions and become very protective of surviving loved ones. You can help these children by encouraging them to express feelings verbally, physically and even creatively (drawing, music etc). You should also allow them to choose how to be involved in the death and mourning rituals.

Those children who are 9-12 years of age tend to think of life’s milestones without the deceased (graduation, marriage etc) and struggle with the awareness death may happen again. They may have difficulty concentrating, changes in grades or nightmares and sleep disturbances. Expect and accept mood swings, be available to listen when they want to talk and try to find peer support groups.

Teenagers, those about 12 years and up, understand the finality and universality of death. They are in that difficult time of desiring independence, while grief may be pushing them toward dependence on others. They feel like they need to be in control of their feelings. Watch for impulsive and high risk behavior and changes in their peer groups. You can be of help to them by many of the things mentioned prior such as encouraging expression of feelings and expecting mood swings. You can also share your own grief and support relationships with other understanding adults.

In conclusion, remember that as a child matures, they may need to "re-visit” a loss, thinking about it with a new level of understanding. As the child’s brain develops and matures, comprehension of death and loss increases. This is why grief can feel like it randomly comes and goes with kids. This mourning for a childhood loss can reappear at different points in the life of the child, especially when important life events reactivate the loss.