Signs of Grief in Children and How to Help Them Cope

Children grieve differently than adults

When a child grieves, you might not even realize that they're grieving. Kids process and display complex emotions differently than adults. However, that doesn’t mean the grief is not happening and that your child isn’t affected by their emotions. Children aren’t too young to grieve.

signs of grieving in children
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell

Ability to Understand Death

Grief in children is tricky because younger children may not understand the concept of death and its permanence. A child might believe that death is temporary, particularly because so many cartoons show a character being mortally wounded and then coming back to life.

Consequently, younger kids often miss a loved one in small spurts and may be sad for a few minutes every now and again, but because they have trouble understanding that death is permanent, they won’t really grasp what the loss will really mean to their life.

It’s common for a younger child to say they understand that Grandpa isn’t coming back, only to then ask if Grandpa will be attending their next birthday party.

Just like understanding of death varies by age, so do the signs of grief. It’s important to recognize when your child is grieving so you can ensure they're dealing with emotions in a healthy way.

Signs a Child Is Grieving

When an adult grieves, it seems to be ever-present, even in moments of happiness. Children, however, often seem fine one moment, only to become very upset the next, because their brains can’t seem to tolerate the sadness for a long period of time.

In the early stages of grief, it’s normal for children to be in a bit of denial that their loved one is gone. They may continue to expect the person who has passed away to show up at any moment. This is normal for a while, but over time, the reality of the loss should begin to sink in, especially with older children.

Whether your child has lost a pet, teacher, neighbor, or family member, here are some other things you might see after the loss:

  • Clinginess: Your child may be extra clingy after a loss. He may cry about having to go to school or he might ask for help for tasks he previously mastered just to get your attention. Infants and toddlers can sense the distress in their caregivers, so they might respond by being irritable, crying more, and wanting to be held even if they aren’t aware of the loss.
  • Developmental regression: Toddlers and preschoolers may start wetting the bed or stop sleeping through the night. A small child might revert to crawling, baby talk, or want to drink from a bottle again.
  • Academic issues: Older children and teenagers who have experienced loss often show grief by falling behind in studies or failing classes that they once aced.
  • Sleeping problems: Grief-stricken children might want to sleep with parents or others close to them, or they could have nightmares or dreams about the person who died.
  • Difficulty concentrating: A child might not be able to focus on any particular activity or have trouble making decisions.
  • Anxiety: Both children and teens start to worry about everything, but particularly about other people in their life dying. They will need reassurance, particularly preschoolers, that they will be safe and looked after on a daily basis.
  • Feelings of abandonment: A child might feel betrayed, rejected, or abandoned by the person who died, and perhaps by others as well.
  • Behavioral reactions: Children of all ages may react to grief by displaying behavioral problems that didn’t exist anymore. They may begin acting out in school or talking back at home. Teenagers may be drawn to riskier behavior, such as drinking or taking drugs.
  • Guilt: It’s common for kids to blame themselves for a loved one’s death. Your child might think it’s his fault because he once wished the person would “go away” or he might somehow think his actions caused the person’s death.
  • Changes in play: Your child may start talking about death in his pretend play more. His stuffed animals, dolls, or action figures may die and come back to life.

Signs a Child May Need Professional Help

Not all children who are grieving need grief counseling. But it’s important to be on the lookout for signs that your child is having an especially difficult time processing the loss. Here are some warning signs that might indicate your child could benefit from professional help:

  • Excessively imitating the deceased person: It’s normal for kids to say things like, “I want to eat chocolate chip cookies because that’s what Grandpa used to like the best.” But, excessively imitating the deceased individual isn’t normal and it may mean your child is struggling to deal with his emotions.
  • Repeatedly expressing a desire to join the deceased person: If your child says he wants to be dead or that he wishes he could die, don’t take those statements lightly. Suicidal ideation is a big red flag and it’s important to talk to your child’s doctor or a mental health professional.

If your child is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

  • Believing they are talking to the deceased person: All children may say they saw the deceased individual or that they talked to the person once in a while. But if your child insists they continue to see the person or has ongoing conversations with the individual, seek professional help.
  • Extended period of depressions: Sadness is normal but a prolonged loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities could be a sign your child is struggling. Mental health issues, like depression or anxiety, can develop after a loss.
  • Symptoms that get worse with time: Your child’s symptoms, like clinginess or difficulty sleeping, should resolve slowly over time. If your child’s symptoms are getting worse, it could be a sign she needs professional help in dealing with her feelings.

Children who are having difficulty coping with a loss may benefit from grief counseling. Grief counseling may involve individual therapy, family therapy, or group treatment.

If you suspect your child is struggling to deal with a loss, talk to your child’s pediatrician. The pediatrician may be able to assess your child’s needs and refer you to an appropriate treatment provider.

How to Help a Child Cope

It’s not easy for an adult to navigate helping a child deal with their grief, and the best interventions vary based on the child’s age.

Here are some strategies that can help your child deal with grief:

  • Be honest and direct about the loss: Using euphemisms, such as “we lost him” or “she’s sleeping now,” can confuse and scare a little one. It’s important for a child to understand that the person isn’t just sleeping or lost, but rather their body stopped working and they are not coming back. Of course, gruesome details aren’t necessary, but you should focus on telling the truth.
  • Help your child acknowledge the loss: It’s up to you to decide if it’s appropriate for your child to attend the funeral. But, if your child is scared to go, don’t force her to do so. You can find other ways to acknowledge your child’s loss. Write a letter to the loved one, hold your own private celebration of life, light a candle, or create a scrapbook at home.
  • Be patient: A child’s grief cycles in and out, and to an adult, it can feel like they’re dwelling after you think the kid has moved on. It's crucial to be patient and respond similarly with comfort and truth every time they return to a moment of grief. A reminder, such as the anniversary of the death, could reawaken the grieving process.
  • Speak with other caregivers: Teachers, particularly, should be in the loop as to what’s going on with the family. They need to know information about the death, whom to turn to if they’re seeing signs of distress, and an appropriate way to support the child if they’re having an emotional moment.
  • Take care of yourself: Your child will look to you to see how to deal with her feelings, so it’s important to make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Talk about your feelings openly but be careful not to burden your child with too many adult issues. It may be helpful for you to speak with a grief counselor or to attend a grief group to help you care for your emotions.
  • Read books about grief: Your child may benefit from reading stories about loss, death, and grief. Be prepared to answer questions about what happens to people when they die. And if you don’t know the answer, it’s OK to say you aren’t sure.

Signs Down the Road

You might not see many signs of grief immediately following a loss, especially if a child is young. But, that doesn't mean you won't see signs of grief years later.

A 4-year-old who loses her father won't understand the finality of death at the time. But, when she's 10 and there's a father-daughter dance, she might begin to see signs of grief as the reality of what she lost really sinks in.

Similarly, a 7-year-old might seem to resolve his grief rather quickly after he loses a grandparent. But, during his teenage years, he may show signs of grief as he beings to understand the things he missed out on by not having his grandmother in his life or he may regret not spending more time with her when she was alive. 

There’s no timeline when it comes to grief, no matter what a person’s age, and it’s not productive to suggest that it’s time for a kid to “get over it.” The grief may last a lifetime, but with support, grief can turn into healing for the whole family.

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Article Sources
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