The loss of a loved one is painful for adults and children alike; however, a child’s reaction may be very different depending on his or her age. This reaction highly depends on their cognitive development and understanding of death. Here’s how you can help your child at different ages.
Before Age Five:
Often, children who are younger than the age of five do not fully understand the concept of death. Although they may initially be upset about the departure of the person, they can’t comprehend the finality of death. In their minds, nothing is permanent and their loved one will soon return. At this age, children think in a very concrete manner. When discussing death, it is important not to use euphemisms and be very straightforward with them. Explain that the loved one is safe and not hurting, but that he or she is not coming back. Understand that this is a very difficult concept to grasp at this age. The child may ask questions like “when is mommy coming back?” and “how far is it to heaven?” Repeated questions surrounding a loved one’s departure are completely normal for children this age and require consistency with your answer.
Behavioural regression and acting out are normal parts of grieving and may occur long after the death of the individual. For example, if your child was fully potty-trained previously and starts peeing her pants following the death of the individual, this may be a sign of grief in your child. It is important to encourage ongoing use of the toilet but not to reprimand your child for the regression. Open discussion is important with all children, but you must use appropriate language for their age so that they can better understand how they feel.
If the behavioural change involves acting out and bad behaviour, treat it as you would any other bad behaviour, but allow for discussion to find out how they are feeling afterward. Discuss appropriate ways to deal with anger and sadness, such as talking to someone, or cuddling and giving hugs to a loved one. If you are at all concerned, consult with your physician for ongoing support.
Age Five to Ten:
At this age, children begin to grasp the idea of death and dying as well as the irreversibility of it. However, they are still very concrete in their thinking. If their loved one died of lung cancer from smoking, they may assume that anyone who smokes will die of lung cancer. As a parent, you can gently explain that this is not always true, but that you understand that it hurts them to see people smoke. Validate their feelings and don’t be afraid to ask your kids how it makes them feel.
Children in this age group often see death as something that happens to others but not to themselves or their family. Once again, behavioural regression and acting out are common responses and need to be recognized as such in order to be dealt with appropriately. For example, if your eight-year-old has not thrown a temper tantrum in the grocery store for several years and suddenly has the patience of a toddler, treat the tantrum just as you would any other bad behaviour and let your chld know that it is not acceptable. Once your child has cooled off, ask why the tantrum happened and how he is feeling. Kids may say they were mad, because they don’t quite have the insight to see that the behaviour is related to the death of their loved one. Discuss this possibility with them and offer suggestions on how they can deal with their anger. This may include talking about it, remembering their loved one with a photograph or keepsake, or even throwing a ball in the backyard.
Most pre-teens and adolescents can think about death in a more abstract manner. They can usually see the long term consequences of death and get fixated over injustice/justice. Children and teens in this age group often have very strong reactions to grief and may act out with violence or self- harm, especially if they have a history of depression.
The best way to predict this is to allow for open discussion with your child. Parents are often scared to discuss self-harm and suicide with their kids for fear that they will “give them the idea”. This is not the case, and in fact open discussion may save your child’s life. If you are concerned about violence or self-harm in your child, see your physician for information on treatment, counselling, community resources and telephone crisis lines in your area.
How Parents Can Help:
- Remember that grieving is a process. Just like in adults, it may take some children longer than others to adjust.
- Give the child ways to remember their loved one, such as photographs or keepsakes. Never force a child to go to a funeral, but encourage them to remember in their own way such as lighting a candle or writing a letter.
- Never lie to a child, at any age.
- Don’t assume that kids understand death just because they are a certain age. Take the time to discuss what it means and encourage questions along the way.
- Build a community of support around the child. Make teachers and friend’s parents aware of the tragedy. Encourage communication with people willing to offer support.
- When in doubt, talk to your family doctor or pediatrician. Your doctor can provide you with community resources, counselling information and suggestions about behavioural /mood changes in your child.
The loss of a loved one is hard on everyone, regardless of age. Being aware of your child’s developmental stage will help you understand how they are grieving so that you can guide them through the process.
Dr. Courtney Manser is a family physician and mother who has a strong interest in preventative care and in providing parents with information so they can make the best choices for their children.