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Ages and Developmental Stages of Grieving Children and Teens

Every child is different and their grief journey is unique.  Each child responds to loss cognitively, emotionally, spiritually and physically in their own way.  However use this chart as a general guide.


Infants: Even infants can sense when something is disrupted in their world. Having a grief stricken caretaker or having people around him or her who are grieving can be enough to affect them.  Although they can't verbalize their grief, they often react by refusing to nap, increased night wakings, not eating well, irritability, excessive crying, increased need to be held and comforted, increased separation anxiety and an overall change in their behavior. Always rule out any possible illness with the doctor, but if the baby has a clean bill of health, it may be safe to assume that he or she is reacting to grief.

What helps?

Giving the infant extra comfort, by holding him or her more, perhaps in a baby sling or a front pack or back pack, even around the house. Rocking a baby can help to calm him, as well as playing calming music softly in the background. Try to feed him in a quiet place and not have too many distractions. Remember that he or she needs to feel secure and safe more now than ever. Talking in a softer voice is also helpful. The best thing is to take care of the caretaker and help the caretaker to feel supported and attended to so he or she can care for the infant.

Ages: 2-4:

Children this age are egocentric naturally.  They don't have the cognitive ability to understand death. They think death is reversible, not permanent. "I know Daddy died. Will he be at my birthday party next weekend?"  A 3 year old at a wake seeing his grandpa in a casket told him to "wake up now, that is enough sleep."

May ask a lot of questions over and over again.  Be patient and give factual information.  No need for too many details.These children may regress, change their eating and sleeping patterns, wet their bed, be irritable and confused.

What helps? They need: short, honest interactions, comfort, reassurance, nurturing and consistent routine.

4-7 years old:

Gaining language, fantasy thinking and wishing.  Concerns about guilt at this age. Death still seen as reversible by many.  Feel responsible because of wishes and thoughts. "It's my fault she died.  I was mad at her and wished she would go away".  Great book : I Know I Made it Happen.   Questions about how, why.  May act as if nothing happened.  There may be general distress and confusion.

What helps? Provide them with terms for some of their feelings such as numb, grief, sadness.  Death play is normal and helps children integrate the reality of the death.  You can join in the play and offer guidance.

Ages 7-11:

Self confidence develops.  Developing cognitive ability and logical thinking begins.  Death is seen as a punishment.  Fear of bodily harm and mutilation. Beginning to see death as final.  They may ask specific questions. They want detail. Want to know the "right" way to respond.  Starting to have the ability to mourn and understand mourning.  Express grief through play.  May "hang back" socially and scholastically.  May see acting out, sleep and appetite disturbance. Concern with body.  May have desire to "join"the one who died.

What helps?: Encourage expression of feelings. Answer questions.  Explain options and allow for choices.  Be available but allow alone time.  Give physical outlets.  TALK ABOUT IT!  Children need permission to concentrate on mourning before they can be expected to forge ahead with the rest of their lives.  Give them time.  Offer "venting" alternatives.  Support groups helpful.

Adolescents (12 and up):

They understand death cognitively, but are only beginning to grapple with it spiritually.  May protest the loss by acting out and/or withdrawing.  May feel life has been unfair to them, and act angry.  May act out a search for meaning.  May test own mortality. Problem solving and abstract thinking period.  "Adult" approach. Work at making sense of teachings.  Depression, regression common. More often willing to talk to people outside of family and seek peer support. Depression and anger common.  Anger toward parents.  Non-compliance. Rejection of former teaching.  Role confusion, acting out.

What helps?:  Encourage verbalization.  Do not take control! Encourage self motivation. Listen!  Be available.  Do not attempt to take their grief away. Tolerate some acting out behaviors as long as teen or other isn't being hurt.  Withdrawal is normal, in the short term (Long term withdrawal is a sign he/she may need extra help).  A teen's normal egocentrism can cause him to focus exclusively on the effect the death had on him and his future.  After he has had time to explore this, encourage him to consider the death's impact on the larger social group: family, friends, etc.  Teens begin to really explore "why" questions about life and death.  Encourage search for meaning unless it may harm the teen or others.

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