A child’s reactions to the death of a loved one are often similar to those of an adult. However, it is important to understand the impact of a child’s development stage on reactions and to recognize the child’s grief even when it is different from that of adults.
In addition to the child’s stage of development, many things affect the child´s life and reactions after the death of a loved one. What things should a professional be able to consider about childhood and adolescent grief?
Traumaterapiakeskus. Miten tukea lasta järkyttävien tapahtumien jälkeen. Saatavilla: https://asiakas.kotisivukone.com/files/ttkeskus.palvelee.fi/tiedostot/lapsen_tukeminen_kriisissa.pdf. Luettu 2.5.2019.
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Childhood and adolescent grief have many things in common with adult grief. If you are a professional working with a grieving child or teenager, our What is grief? site will help you understand emotions and reaction caused by grief.
What’s special about childhood and adolescent grief?
Even the smallest of children will grieve, but in their own way. It’s harmful to think that a child would not grieve or remember the loss. A child’s grief will often manifest itself in play.
The death of a loved one will affect the child’s or adolescent’s development. Childhood and adolescence are stages that come with several development tasks as it is. If a person loses a loved one in these stages, it happens during a very vulnerable time. A child may experience regression. Their behaviour may change, they may act disruptively, or their performance at school may suffer. On the other hand, experiencing a heavy loss may cause the child to mature fast and act overly mature.
Children do not have the words to conceptualise grief and death the way adults do.We understand and process emotions and events through language. It’s important that adults help children verbalise the event and name their emotions.
Children grieve in shorter periods than adults. The change from play to grieving and back can be very quick. This does not mean that a child’s grief or longing are weaker than those of an adult. Rather, it is because a child can’t face the grief all at once, and would rather process it in small bits.
Death may cause fears and worries that need to be processed with an adult. A child may fear that they will die, or that all the child’s loved ones will die. Depending on the situation and the child’s development stage, the child may have scary beliefs and misconceptions about death. The child should have the opportunity to process these fears and worries with a safe adult.
The child or teenager may behave exceptionally well but still need help and support. The child or teenager may attempt to protect other family members from grief by behaving well and happily; they may not understand that death causes distressing emotions, and may attempt to hide or suppress them. There is a risk that others may not recognise the grief of a well-behaving child or teenager and they may not get help because of it.
Peer relationships are vital to a young person.The young person may not have friends with similar experiences of bereavement. This young person to feel different from others, which will make it difficult for them to talk about the loss.
As the child grows, the memory of the death re-emerges at different development stages. As the child’s or teenager’s conception of grief changes, they will face the death of a loved one again and incorporate it into their worldview. The death of a loved one will affect the child for a very long time.
How does a child understand death?
A Child’s thinking is…
Prelogical. A child’s understanding of cause and effect is different from an adult’s. It’s important to clarify to the child which causes led to the death (accident, the person’s wish to die) and which ones didn’t (the child’s actions or thoughts).
Magical. Children see themselves as the centre of every event. For this reason, it’s important to tell the child that their actions or thoughts had no bearing on the death.
Circular. A child’s concept of time is circular. Even after being told that somebody has died, the child may expect the person to be alive the next day.
What should a child know to understand death?
The universality of death. Death does not pick and choose its targets, and every living thing will die eventually.
The finality of death. Hoping, praying, time or good behavior will not bring the dead person back.
The dead person no longer exists. A person who is dead and buried will not feel, smell or taste anything.
Concept of death at different ages
Apart from the child’s age, the child’s concept of death is influenced by previous experiences and the family’s way of dealing with issues. The concept of death is always unique to every individual. However, a professional will benefit from understanding how the average child understands death at different ages.
Under 2 years of age
A child under 2 years of age does not understand death, but can sense other people’s emotions and miss the deceased. You can talk to the child about the event and the deceased, as this will help the child process it later.
2–5 years of age
A 2-5 year-old child does not understand the universality or permanence of death. The child believes that they are capable of anything, which may make them believe that they have caused the death with their thoughts or actions, and that thoughts and actions can also bring the deceased person back.
Avoid metaphors when discussing death with a small child. The child is likely to interpret them literally.
Going through the death of a parent at this age threatens the child’s sense of safety. Honest discussion about death, as well as the presence of safe, permanent caretakers will help the child.
6–9 years of age
A child of 6 to 9 will understand that death is irreversible and can happen to anyone. This may increase the child’s fear of loss or death. The child begins to understand cause and effect that leads to death, and you should talk about it with the child.
Children are usually very curious at this age. The child may want to know in detail what a dead person looks like or what happens to the body in the grave. Try to answer the child’s questions as honestly as possible.
10–13 years of age
A child of 10 to 13 understands the irreversibility of death and thinks about the long-term effects that the other person’s death has on their life. The child may also think about the possibility of their own death.
At this age, the child may feel very different from their peers. The child will need adult support to deal with their emotions and loss.
14–18 years of age
A 14–18 year-old has a very similar concept of death that an adult does, but a teenager’s emotional development is still unfinished. The adolescent may ask very profound questions about the meaning of life and themselves. On the other hand, a bereaved adolescent may avoid talking about and grieving the death by keeping themselves busy. You shouldn’t pressure the adolescent into processing the loss, but if the adolescent so wishes, they should be given help by their parents and other adults, including medical professionals if needed.
The child needs facts about death
Children may be protected from information related to death, especially in the case of shocking events, such as suicide or homicide. However, the child wants to know the facts surrounding the death of a loved one, as does an adult. The child will notice if there are gaps in the information given to them, and the child will fill in the gaps with their own imagination. The imagined things may be more frightening and distressing than reality, especially when a child is prone to magical thinking.
Research indicates that getting informed and learning about death does not hurt the child. However, it’s important that the information is given age-appropriately – extreme details are not necessary. The child must be able to discuss the things they have heard and their thoughts with a trustworthy adult. A professional therapist can help you if you are wondering what you should tell a child and how.
What should you consider about childhood and adolescent grief?
How does the death impact the child’s everyday life? For example, the loss of a parent has a different impact than the loss of a sibling, but both losses will turn the everyday life upside down.
Was the death sudden or was there a chance to prepare for it beforehand? A sudden death results in a stronger trauma than a death that others have been able to prepare for.
How and what type of information has the child been given about the death? The child needs factual information about the death of a loved one. It’s important that the information is given by a familiar and safe adult who is not in strong emotional distress. The child should be told about the death in a peaceful environment and in a language that is appropriate to the child’s age and understanding.
How is the child’s family and family situation? What kind of support will the child get from their family and other environment? The family situation, the child’s attachment pattern and previous experiences will influence the child’s reaction to the death and their need for support.
Practical tips for helping a grieving child or adolescent
Ask about and consider the thoughts and wishes of the child’s parent(s). For example, when the child returns to day care or school, you should talk to the parents about how you should act and what needs to be told to other children about the situation.
The child is as much a relation to the deceased as adults. Don’t exclude children when you deliver the death news or help the family in saying goodbye or collecting memories.
Consider the resources of the child’s or young person’s guardian(s). The death may have reduced the guardian’s resources. It is the professional’s duty to ensure that the child gets help and support even if the guardian is low on energy or money.
Reinforce the child’s sense of safety in everyday life. It’s important for the child that everyday routines remain predictable, and that the child can get support from a safe adult.
When does a grieving child need professional help?
Our What is grief? site lists signs that indicate when a grieving person needs professional help. These symptoms apply to both children and adolescents, and anyone working with a grieving child or adolescent should get to know the symptoms.
It’s important to consider the entire family and the family situation! The following signs indicate that professional help may be needed:
The child withdraws from friends and/or adults
The behavior and personality of the child change drastically.
The child experiences hallucinations or exhibits disordered speech.
Where can I direct the child or adolescent if they need professional help?
Depending on the situation, you can direct the child to a crisis centre, child psychiatry or adolescent psychiatry units, or to school health care. If the entire family needs help, you can guide them to family counselling services or municipal social services.
Peer networks arrange events for children and young people as well as family weekends, where children receive peer support under the guidance of a professional. Mental Health Finland has specific grief groups for children and young people. Children may also receive help from the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare or their local parish.
How to support a child or a young person when a loved one has died? A guide for loved ones
and people working with families
If you are a loved one of a grieving child or adolescent, you can give this guide to
the school or kindergarten staff to read. If you yourself are working with children or young people and meet a family that has lost a loved one, we hope that you give
them this guide.