Navigating Grief: A Developmental Perspective on Children's Coping

mom consoling crying child

Grief is a universal human experience that knows no age limits. However, the way children process and express grief can be vastly different from adults. Understanding these distinctions is crucial for providing effective support as children traverse the challenging terrain of loss. In this blog, we will explore how children at different developmental stages—preschoolers (ages 3-4), early elementary kids (5-7), later elementary kids (8-10), and tween (10+) —navigate grief, and what strategies can be helpful for each age group.

Preschoolers (Ages 3-4):

Preschoolers are just beginning to grasp the concept of permanence, making it challenging for them to comprehend the finality of death. At this age, children often exhibit regressive behaviors, such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking, as a way to cope with their emotions. They may struggle to articulate their feelings verbally and since they live in the present, they may worry about their own safety and who will take care of them.

Helpful Strategies:

  1. Simple Explanations: Use clear and straightforward language to explain the concept of death such as, “her body stopped working.”
  2. Reassurance: Provide comfort by emphasizing that they are still loved and cared for.
  3. Consistent Routine: Maintain a stable routine to provide a sense of security.
  4. Make-Believe Play: Kids may use play as a way to process grief by creating scenarios in which character die, go to heaven, etc. This is normal and healthy.

Early Elementary Kids (Ages 5-7):

Children in early elementary school face a unique set of challenges when dealing with grief. While they are beginning to understand the permanence of death, they may still struggle with the abstract nature of grief and lack the coping skills to handle their overwhelming emotions. Some kids might have big emotional responses to death while others mask their emotions more, or move in and out of each extreme.

Additionally, at this age, children are susceptible to "magical thinking," where they tend to assume they are the cause of major events happening around them. This can lead to feelings of guilt and confusion in the face of loss. Assuring kids that they are not responsible for the death and providing clear explanations about what does and does not cause a person to die is crucial.

Helpful Strategies:

  1. Educate: Focus on causes of death use age-appropriate language and explanations.
  2. Creative Outlets: Encourage artistic expression through drawing or play to help them process their emotions.
  3. Open Communication: Create a safe space for them to talk about their feelings, and validate their experiences.
  4. Storytelling: Share age-appropriate books or stories about loss to help them understand and connect with the grieving process.

Later Elementary Kids (Ages 8-10):

Children in the later elementary years have a more mature understanding of death but may grapple with conflicting emotions. With this increase in understanding, they may experience a range of feelings, including sadness, anger, or guilt and may move in and out of their feelings of grief for longer periods of time than their younger counterparts.  As they are more aware of others and their impact on others, you may notice them beginning to caretake a grieving parent or mask their own emotions so as not to upset anyone.

Helpful Strategies:

  1. Honesty: Be open and honest in discussions about death, answering their questions with age-appropriate information. Emphasize the importance of being with hard feelings.
  2. Support Groups: Consider involving them in support groups or activities where they can connect with peers experiencing similar grief.
  3. Memorializing: Encourage them to participate in creating a memorial or tribute, fostering a sense of closure and remembrance.
  4. Pay Attention to Behavior Changes: Some kids will throw themselves into extracurriculars and while regular activity can be a great way to cope with grief ensure they have other outlets to process instead of solely distracting. Other kids may have issues concentrating in school or getting along with peers. Notice that any particular changes in your child could be grief related. 

Tweens (Ages 10 and up):

Teenagers experience grief in a way that more closely mirrors adult emotions. They may grapple with identity, existential questions, and the complexities of mourning in the midst of their own personal development. As they rely more closely on their friendships to provide support instead of family members, they may be less communicative at home but may also feel self-conscious in front of their peers and not able to open up about their experiences. This age group is more prone to coping with difficult emotions in unhealthy ways.

Helpful Strategies:

  1. Space for Independence: Allow them the space to grieve in their own way and respect their need for independence.
  2. Professional Support: Consider involving a grief counselor or therapist to provide additional support.
  3. Memorializing Through Activities: Engage them in activities that honor the memory of the person they lost, such as volunteering or participating in memorial events.
  4. Risk Factors: Know the risk factors for self-harm, suicidal ideation, and unhealthy ways of coping.

Grief is a nuanced and evolving process, especially for children at different developmental stages. By understanding their unique needs and tailoring support accordingly, caregivers and educators can play a pivotal role in helping children navigate the challenging journey of grief.