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How grief may affect children

Grief is a process that takes time. Some children seem fine, at least initially, and may even behave better than they did before the death. For example, they may become quieter and calmer. This can be a sign that they’re hiding their feelings, putting on a brave face or simply trying not to upset others.

On this page:

The information in these pages mainly applies to children aged 0-12. Information for helping teens cope with their loss can be found here.

If you’re a child who’s recently lost someone close, please get in touch with one of the charities listed at the bottom of this page.

How children understand and react to death

Age (years) Understanding of death Common reactions
0-2 years
  • No concept of death.
  • Will notice the absence of a parent between 4-7 months.
  • Anxious about separating from parent.
  • Acts in ways they did when they were younger (regressive behaviour).
  • Feeding and sleeping difficulties.
2-5 years
  • Sees death as reversible.
  • May feel they have caused the death.
  • May make up fantasies to fill gaps in knowledge.
  • Fears abandonment and separation.
  • Despair.
  • Angry about changes to their daily routine.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Complaints such as tummy aches.
  • Regressive behaviour eg sucking a thumb or wetting the bed.
  • Takes explanations literally.
5-11 years
  • Starts to understand the finality of death at about eight years old.
  • Withdrawal, sadness, loneliness.
  • Gets angry more often, difficulty concentrating at school.
  • Tries to be the perfect child.
  • Regressive behaviour.
  • Tries to be brave and control things.
  • Feels different to their peers, struggles to express him/herself verbally.

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Changes in behaviour

At times children may seem unaffected by the death and play happily as if nothing has happened. But watch out for any changes in their behaviour, which could be their way of expressing feelings they can’t talk about. These could include:

  • Clinginess. Refusing to be left or clinging to you or someone else can be how your child expresses the need for reassurance that you aren’t going to die and leave them too.
  • Distance. Some children can put up a barrier with remaining members of the family because they’re scared of getting hurt again. They might want to spend more time away from home, with friends or at school. 
  • Aggression. This may be your child’s way of expressing helplessness in the face of loss.
  • Regression. How children respond to death can vary a lot from day to day. Acting like a younger child can be a sign of insecurity. Young children may start wetting or soiling themselves, or want a long-forgotten bottle or dummy. They may become more prone to illness or even lose weight.
  • Lack of concentration. Your child may find it hard to concentrate at school and fall behind with their work.
  • Sleep problems. Your child may find it hard to sleep and become afraid of the dark.

These are all natural reactions and will pass. However, if you have any concerns, there are people out there you can talk to.

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External websites

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