Signs of Grief in Children and How to Help Them Cope

Children grieve differently than adults

In This Article

When a child grieves the loss of a loved one, 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. What's more, children aren’t too young to grieve.

signs of grieving in children
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

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 fully 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. In fact, one study found that interventions can help a child cope with a loss in a healthy way and help prevent the development of mental health issues or traumatic grief.

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 cope with the sadness for long periods of time.

In the early stages of grief, it’s normal for children to experience 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 denial 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

Children may be extra clingy after a loss. They may cry about having to go to school or they might ask for help for tasks they 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. Meanwhile, 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. They also may have trouble concentrating on tasks or fail to complete assignments.

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. Meanwhile, older children may have a bit of insomnia or may be afraid of death, which keeps them from sleeping.

Difficulty Concentrating

Sometimes children might not be able to focus on any particular activity or have trouble making decisions or solving problems. They also struggle to focus and may appear distracted or lost in space.

Anxiety

Both children and teens may start to worry about everything, but particularly about other people in their life dying. They will need reassurance that they will be safe and looked after on a daily basis. This need is particularly evident among preschoolers.

Feelings of Abandonment

Children might feel betrayed, rejected, or abandoned by the person who died, and perhaps by others as well. Consequently, they may need to be reassured that you will be there for them.

Make sure you keep your promises, especially during this time period, so that these fears about abandonment will not persist.

Behavioral Reactions

Children of all ages may react to grief by displaying behavioral problems that didn’t exist before. They may begin acting out in school or talking back at home. Likewise, 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. Children might think it’s their fault because they once wished the person would “go away” or they might somehow think their actions caused the person’s death.

Changes in Play

Young children may start talking about death in their pretend play more. Their stuffed animals, dolls, or action figures may die and come back to life. If you witness this behavior, you need to recognize that your child is grieving the loss.

When to Get 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 liked best.” But excessively imitating the deceased individual isn’t normal, and it may mean your child is struggling to deal with their emotions.
  • 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 when children insist they continue to see the person or have ongoing conversations with the individual, seek professional help.
  • Extended period of depression: 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 gradually over time. If your child’s symptoms are getting worse, it could be a sign they need professional help in dealing with their feelings.
  • Repeatedly expressing a desire to join the deceased person: If your child says they want to be dead or that they wish they 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.

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 deal with their own grief and navigate helping a child with their grief. But it's important to help kids learn how to cope. Here are some strategies you can use to help your child deal with grief.

Be Honest

Using euphemisms, such as “we lost him” or “she’s sleeping now,” can confuse and scare a little one. It’s important for children 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 make a point to tell the truth.

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 them 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 on the loss after you thought they had moved on. It's crucial to be patient and respond similarly with comfort and truth every time they return to a moment of grief.

Remember that a reminder, such as the anniversary of the death, could reawaken the grieving process.

Speak With 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 their 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 support 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.

Four-year-olds who lose their father won't understand the finality of death at the time. But when they're 10 and there's a father-daughter dance or a father-son fishing trip, they might begin to show signs of grief as the reality of what they lost really sinks in.

Similarly, 7-year-olds might seem to resolve their grief rather quickly after they lose a grandparent. But during their teenage years, they may show signs of grief as they begin to understand the things they missed out on by not having their grandparent in their life, or they may regret not spending more time with them when they were alive. 

There’s no timeline when it comes to grief, no matter how young or old a person is.

As a result, it’s not productive to suggest that it’s time for a child 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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  1. Bergman AS, Axberg U, Hanson E. When a parent dies - a systematic review of the effects of support programs for parentally bereaved children and their caregiversBMC Palliat Care. 2017;16(1):39. doi:10.1186/s12904-017-0223-y

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