Understanding what to expect while your children are grieving is important so you can be better prepared to support them.
Children dealing with grief will experience a wide range of emotions and express themselves in a variety of ways. Children often process emotions differently to adults.
How Children Understand Death
The ability for children to understand death depends on their age and developmental level. From about ages 6 to 8 years old, children begin to understand that death is permanent and irreversible.
Prior to this, they may struggle to understand that death is permanent, or believe it is something that only happens to other people. Once your children understand the permanency of death, they may begin feeling anxious about themselves or other loved ones dying, or become preoccupied with health and safety.
Younger children may not be able to express these complex emotions verbally so they may instead react behaviourally. Although younger children may not understand death, they will still be aware of their loved one’s absence and may feel this loss keenly.
As children approach adolescence, they are usually developmentally capable of abstract thinking and can conceptualise death in a more adult manner. They can understand that death is universal, inevitable, and irreversible. They may start to ask questions about what happens after death. Older children have formed strong bonds with friends, so they may seek support from them instead of turning to their parents and caregivers.
Feelings and Behaviours
Grieving children will experience a wide range of emotions, including:
These feelings are uncomfortable and hard, but they are common amongst grieving children.
Let your child know that these feelings are normal and that they can talk to you when they’re struggling with their grief. Also be aware that your child may have sudden mood changes. They may feel good in the morning, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will feel good all day.
Younger children may not be able to vocalise their feelings and older children may not feel comfortable talking about them, so you should keep an eye out for these behaviours:
- Social withdrawal
- Restless hyperactivity
- Absent-minded behaviours
- Acting out
No matter how your children react to the death of a loved one, you should let them know that you understand, you’re not mad at them, and you’re always available to provide comfort.
If you are concerned that your child’s behaviour is putting them or others at risk, please reach out to accredited support services for advice.
Grief isn’t just an emotional reaction to death; it may also come with physical symptoms. These symptoms may be a manifestation of the anxiety and depression that often stems from loss. Some physical reactions to look out for are:
- Tightness in chest
- Hollowness/pit in stomach
- Dry mouth
- Shortness of breath
- Oversensitivity to noise
- Muscle weakness
- Appetite Disturbances
- Weight loss or gain
Your child may also experience sleep disturbances and may ask to sleep with you, even if this seems
Common Coping Mechanisms
Coping mechanisms are strategies people adopt to help them manage painful or difficult emotions. All people, including children, will react to the death of a loved one differently and adopt different coping mechanisms. Some common coping mechanisms in children include:
- Asking many questions about the death
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Misbehaving with attention seeking or aggressive behaviours
- Treasuring objects that belonged to the deceased
- Avoiding reminders of the deceased
Older children may demonstrate different coping mechanisms, including:
- Visiting places that remind them of the deceased
- Favouring talking to adults and peers outside the family
- Acting with bravado, as if they are unaffected
- Hiding or repressing feelings
- Taking on more responsibilities
- Acting out with risk-taking behaviours
Coping mechanisms are healthy when they don’t put your child or others at risk, and if they’re not done to an obsessive level. It’s important to seek help for your child so they can develop healthy coping mechanisms that assist in the healing process instead of harming it.
Reaching Out for Help
At Feel the Magic, we are dedicated to helping grieving kids heal. We have virtual and face-to-face camps designed by psychologists and run by trained professionals to give kids and parents the tools they need to connect with their emotions and each other.
Our programs encourage healthy grieving and introduce families to a supportive community. For more information or to register your interest in our camps, please contact us.
If you need immediate help or wish to learn more about other grief organisations that can offer you support, we have created a list of other organisations that exist to support people’s mental wellbeing and grief. You can also join our grief community to connect with other families who have also experienced grief after the death of an immediate family member.
Always remember that help is available for you and your children, you just need to ask for it.