Grief Reactions by Age

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.

Understanding


  • 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

Grief Reactions


  • 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.

Understanding


    • 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

Grief Reactions


  • 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

Understanding


  • 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

Grief Reactions


  • 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.

Understanding


  • 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.

Grief Reactions


  • 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.

-Adapted from the Dougy Center for Grieving Children