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Children and grief

Children react differently than adults when dealing with the death of a loved one. To console your own child, learn the normal responses to grief that children have and the signs when your child is not coping well with grief.

How Children Think About Death Depends on how old They are

It helps to understand how children think before talking to them about death. This is because you must speak to them on the subject at their own level.

  • Infants and toddlers will be aware that people are sad. But they won't have any real understanding of death.
  • Preschool children think death is temporary and reversible. They may see death as simply a separation.
  • Children over 5 years old are beginning to understand that death lasts forever. But they think death is something that happens to others, not to themselves or their own families.
  • Teens understand that death is a stop of body functions and is permanent.

What to Expect

It is normal to grieve for the death of a close family member or friend. Expect your child to show a range of emotions and behaviors that can arise at unexpected times, such as:

  • Sadness and crying.
  • Anger. Your child may explode in anger, play too rough, have nightmares, or fight with other family members. Understand that the child doesn't feel in control.
  • Acting younger. Many children will act younger, especially after a parent dies. They may want to be rocked, to sleep by an adult, or refuse to be left alone.
  • Asking the same question over and over. They ask because they don't quite believe that someone they love has died and they are trying to accept what has happened.

What you can do

You should:

  • NOT lie about what is going on. Children are smart. They pick up on dishonesty and will wonder why you are lying.
  • NOT force children who are afraid to go to funerals. Find other ways for your children to remember and honor the deceased. For example, you can light a candle, pray, float a balloon to the sky, or look at photos.
  • Let your child's teachers know what has happened so the child can get support at school.
  • Give a lot of love and support to children as they grieve. Let them tell their stories and listen. This is one way for kids to deal with grief.
  • Give children time to grieve. Avoid telling children to return to normal activities without the time to grieve. This may cause emotional problems later.
  • Take care of your own grief. Your children look to you to understand how to handle grief and loss.

When to Call the Doctor

Ask your child's health care provider for help if you are worried about your child. Children may be having real problems with grief if they are:

  • Denying that someone has died
  • Depressed and not interested in activities
  • Not playing with their friends
  • Refusing to be alone
  • Refusing to attend school or has a drop in school performance
  • Displaying changes in appetite
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Continuing to act younger for a long time
  • Saying that they are going to join the dead person

References

American Academy of Children & Adolescent Psychiatry. Grief and children. Updated July 2013. www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-And-Grief-008.aspx. Accessed July 8, 2016.

McCabe ME, Serwint JR. Loss, separation, and bereavement. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme J, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 18.

Review Date 5/18/2016

Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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