Grief Reactions by Age
The following are general categories, not all children will fit “neatly” in to one of these groups. It may be helpful to read through each group to gain a better understanding of how grief affects children and teens of different ages. Be mindful that each child is different and grief looks different for everybody.
- Sees death as temporary, believes that the person will return or can be visited
- Has difficulty handling concepts such as heaven, the soul or spirit
- Feels sadness, but often for only a short time and often escapes into play, giving adults the impression the child isn’t really grieving
- Substitutes attachment to another person in exchange for attachment to person who died
- Needs a daily routine, structure, affection, and reassurance
- Acting out behaviors include: regression, nightmares, aggression, non-compliance
- A young child will begin to examine death with words.
- A young child understands the profoundness of the event, but may not know that the person is gone.
- A young child’s primary expression of feeling will be through his/her play.
- A death affects a young child’s sense of security.
- A young child can express strong feelings in his/her sleep and dreams.
- A young child may address a loss more spontaneously than an adult and thus may “recover” from it more quickly.
- Begins to understand that death is final and permanent
- Begins to have a fear of death and of others dying
- May feel guilt (magical thinking) and blame self for the death
- Has difficulty putting problems and feelings into words
- Often asks concrete and specific questions about the death, the body, etc.
- Identifies strongly with the deceased
- Acting out behaviors include: compulsive care giving, aggression, possessiveness, regression, headaches, stomachaches, phobias
- Language is becoming a more important tool in the processing of a child’s grief.
- Physical expressions of the grief a child does not have the words to express.
- The family is a grieving child’s main security.
- Peer relationships can help to support a child through a grieving time and help to avoid their feeling different.
- School responsibilities and outcomes may be affected
- Recognizes that death is inevitable and irreversible
- May view death as punishment
- Retains some elements of magical thinking
- Often very curious and interested in the “gory” details
- May come up with own theories or explanations of the reasons for the death
- May have many practical questions about the body, the funeral, etc.
- Acting out behaviors include: aggression, possessiveness, headaches, stomachaches, phobias, defiance
- The preadolescent is a young person full of changing behaviors when grieving. Emotional turmoil is heightened by physical change.
- The preadolescent may swing back and forth in dependence support from the family to the peers.
- The preadolescent begins to engage in discussion that integrates significant events in his/her life, but physical outlets for emotions are still necessary.
- Nearing adult levels of concepts
- May worry or think about own death
- Often avoids discussions of death
- Fears “looking different”
- May question religious beliefs
- Often angry at the deceased
- May fear the future
- Acting out behaviors include: aggression, possessiveness, headaches, stomachaches, phobias, increased sexual activity, increased drug use, increased risk-taking, defiance, suicidal ideation.
- Discussion of the critical events becomes the primary means of processing grief.
- Teens may feel highly self-conscious about being different due to grief.
- Teens are self-centered and thus have an exaggerated sense of their own role in regards to death.
- Teens may fight their vulnerability in grief because it may cause them to feel more dependent on their family at a time when they are striving for independence.
- Teens are affected physically by the grieving process, especially in their sleeping and eating patterns.