The death of someone close to a child may lead to a whole range of emotions including sadness, depression, anxiety and anger. Of course, the manifestation of grief tends to be different for each child but how they generally react can be grouped into age ranges. Typically, as the child gets older, they understand the concept and consequences of death more clearly. Understanding these reactions can help you to help the child come to terms with their loss.
Let’s start by taking a look at each age range:
Infants (Birth - 2 years)
Infants have no real understanding of death, but will miss the presence of a person they are used to having around, typically a parent or sibling. They are aware of the separation and may react to the absence of a parent or caregiver with increased crying, decreased responsiveness and changes in eating or sleeping habits. They may keep looking or asking for a missing parent or caregiver and wait for him or her to return. What is key to remember about this group is that they are most affected by the sadness of those surrounding them.
Preschool (3 - 6 years)
During preschool years, children will slowly begin to understand the concept of death but will still probably not understand that death is final. They are curious and tend to believe that death is temporary or can be reversed. This age range often feel guilt and believe that they are responsible for the death of a loved one, perhaps because they were “bad” or wished the person would “go away”. They may even think that, if they are “good enough” they can make the person who died come back.
Given this group has a greater understanding of death, but not yet the communication skills to articulate their feelings, they may react to loss with behaviours such as irritability, aggression, physical symptoms, difficulty sleeping, or regression. If the deceased was a parent, they will worry about who will take care of them and the possibility that this could happen again and they will be “left behind”. Once again, they are very much affected by the sadness of surviving family members.
Primary School Age (6 - 12 years)
As the child grows older into primary school age they now begin to grasp the fact that death is the end and once someone is dead, they are not coming back. Generally, by the the age of 10, they will understand that death cannot be avoided and happens to everyone. This, by extension, can lead to worrying about their own mortality. If the child is struggling to talk about their feelings, this may come out in behaviours such as school avoidance, poor performance in school, aggression, physical symptoms, withdrawal from friends and regression.
This group is often also curious about the details of death. What happens to the body? Will there be a ghost? Where does the person go?
Teenagers (13 - 18 years)
Out of all the age groups teenagers often struggle the most with grief and may not be receptive to support from adult family members because of their need to be independent and separate from parents. They may act out in anger at family members or show impulsive or reckless behaviours, such as substance abuse, fighting in school and sexual promiscuity.
Helping a child deal with Grief
Now you have looked at the various stages of grief and how a child may react, how can you help?
Firstly, make sure they are in a secure and stable environment. Showing affection to the child and repeatedly telling them it is not their fault is essential in helping them move past the loss. Tell them what they are feeling anger, guilt and sadness are all natural feelings but will get better with time. Talk about happy stories and help them remember the fun times that they had with the deceased.
Children are very good at picking up body language. They can tell when people are upset and will generally avoid talking about a subject if they can see it upsets the adults in their life, for example, “if Mummy and Daddy won’t talk about it, I shouldn’t either”. Encourage them to talk openly about how they feel, answer any questions and, if you don’t know an answer, find it out together.
The age of the child should not change how you speak to them though. Always try to be direct, answer questions honestly and use correct terminology. Avoid using phrases such as “Grandma has gone to sleep”; this can cause panic as the child may now associate sleeping and taking naps with dying.
There are a number of organisations who can help you to help a bereaved child and some of these are listed below.