The loss of a loved one is difficult for anyone to come to terms with, but for children it can be especially complex. Depending on the age of the child, there is a range of emotions they can experience and behaviours they can exhibit. As parents, it is important that we recognise grief and respond appropriately.
Children younger than age 3:
Children of this age have little or no understanding of death. If the deceased is a parent or other close person in their life, they may react to the seperation and any change of routine or environment. They are likely to search, cry and overall be upset and clingy. They may also change their sleep or eating habits.
For children this age it is important for parents to try to maintain normality as much as possible, and minimise any impact on the child. Provide extra attention and affection when needed, and be patient and understanding with any ‘acting out' behaviour.
Children aged 3-5:
Children of this age have some understanding of death, but it is likely to them to mean a change in living circumstances. They will struggle to realise the finality of death, and may believe it is reversible. They may also ask many questions and try to personalise the experience, even believing it was caused by them. Children of this age may feel angry, sad and worried and express their emotions through tantrums, clinging, regression to behaviours such as bed-wetting, nightmares, etc. They may feel scared that other people close to them will die too, or act as though the deceased is still alive.
For children this age parents need to be patient with questions and answer them as openly as possible. Try to avoid confusing descriptions such as ‘passed away' or ‘gone to sleep'. Though this may be easier to say, it is likely to confuse a small child. Emphasise the fact that the deceased person is not in pain or suffering. Modelling appropriate grief can also be important to show them it's ok to be upset and sad.
Children aged 6-9:
Children of this age are able to comprehend simple details about how a person died, such as from disease or in an accident. They are likely to concentrate on concrete details such as that a dead person is buried in the ground, or is taken away by a special car. However their emotions can often not match their level of cognitive understanding. They may also develop beliefs that their thoughts can cause bad things to happen. Children of this age may feel denial, anger, self-blame or irritability. Their moods may fluctuate and they may become withdrawn and struggle to concentrate.
Children of this age need to be reassured they are not to blame. It may be helpful to give them mechanisms to express their grief, perhaps through painting, drawing, music, letters to the deceased, or making memory boxes. Concrete actions like these may help them come to terms with the death and the sense of loss they feel. They may also need extra support with schooling and home chores.
Children aged 9-12:
Children of this age are likely to understand the finality of death, and that it will happen to everyone at some time. They may feel different, or as though they need to put on a brave face. They may also feel protective of others. They may become aggressive or resentful, and experience disturbed sleep, isolation and suppressed emotions. They may also become preoccupied with their physical health or school performance.
Children of this age may need a lot of emotional support from parents and peers. They may even need professional counselling. As parents, you may need support for yourself and guidance from others about the best ways to help your child.
Teens and adolescents:
Teenagers understand the full implications of death. As such they may feel resentful and concerned about the future. They are likely to question their own mortality and may be scared of exposing their emotions. They may experience anger, anxiety, resentment, self-involvement, fear of death, avoidance of feelings, guilt and distance. They may engage in risky behaviours and ‘act out', or become apathetic and withdrawn.
Children of this age may need time and patience to work through their feelings. They may come into conflict with you or others, so it is important to give them space and support them however you can. They may seek support from peers or others close to them, which should be encouraged. They may also need professional counselling.
Throughout all of these stages it is important to monitor a child's progress through time and seek guidance from a mental health professional if you have any concerns. They may be able to offer you advice or point you towards appropriate support for you or your child. It's also important to recognise your own feelings, and seek relevant support for yourself so you can be there for your child.