Grief and Child Development

In general, a child’s understanding of grief and their emotional response can be related to his or her developmental age. But, remember that grieving is unique to each person, and chronological age is not always the same as developmental age – the age delineations and descriptions below are only general guidelines.


Infancy to 2 years of age

  • No concept of death
  • Reacts to emotion in others
  • Will react to the separation from the one who cares for them
  • Crankiness
  • Tears or vomiting
  • Regression in toilet habits
  • Clinginess

How to help


  • Keep routines intact – child cannot tell time, but knows something is terribly wrong
  • Child is capable of reacting to stress – provide a consistent, comforting and loving caregiver who understand the child’s fear of separation



3 to 5 years of age


  • “Age of Discovery”- child uses all five senses
  • No abstract thinking – they hear you but cannot interpret the information
  • No concept of death for self
  • Want to fix things for others
  • Believe death is reversible as on TV, in movies; engage in magical thinking
  • May believe the death is their fault
  • May show little concern initially, but may become emotionally stricken later
  • Behavior changes: high/low energy, kicking/hitting, may regress, interrupted
  • Physical complaints: stomachaches, headaches, body pain

How to help


  • State the fact of death to them – no euphemisms; they need repetition
  • Provide opportunities for creative play and big energy
  • Be consistent and offer lots of physical and emotional nurturing



6 to 10 years of age


  • They know they can die and begin to understand permanence – they fear
    death, and may ask difficult questions about their loss and death in general
  • Their talk can be very tearful
  • May regress in behaviors and expression of emotions
  • Their biggest concern is fitting in with their peer group and not being different


How to help


  • They need a great deal of reassurance and opportunities to talk
  • Be honest and consistent in your communications
  • Provide them with opportunities to socialize with other children who are grieving


10 to 13 years of age


  • Death is very personal – they have a realistic view of death
  • Curious about the biological and logistical aspects of death
  • Separation anxiety – need affection, but may be embarrassed by it
  • Grades may fail
  • May regress in behaviors
  • May need to vent their feelings
  • May emotionally separate from the ones they love as a defense and self-preservation mechanism
  • Their biggest concern is fitting in with their peer group and not being different


How to help


  • Encourage them to talk to a trusted adult or friend and provide opportunities for expression and sharing
  • Normalize their feelings and give them space to grieve
  • Facilitate their joining a support group or community of peers who understand


Teenage years


  • More adult thought processes evident
  • Complete understanding of the reality and permanence of death
  • Their biggest concern is fitting in with their peer group and not being different
  • Working hard to establish their own identity
  • May feel confusion about being both a child and a young adult


How to help


  • Encourage communication
  • Offer reassurance that their confusions, needs and frustrations are normal for their age and loss experience
  • Physical touch is important, but ask for permission first
  • You may need to engage in loving confrontation, especially if you see that they are isolating themselves from others
  • Encourage them to join a support group for teens who have experienced a death loss

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OCT 23, 2020

After 20 months of separation, quarantine, and zoom calls, we finally had an opportunity to move Onward at an in-person camp. The power of Camp Kate is being able to be with peers who help us move forward in our grief journeys.

For this first camp in two years, we returned to Camp Westminster with an Onward theme. Like the characters in the Disney movie, we talked about those special people in our lives, the memories made and missed with them, and our plans for moving Onward.

We still employed safety protocols and social distancing among our groups, but our masked campers and adults still benefitted from being with peers. Whether involved in archery, fishing, kayaking, rock wall climbing, or small group sharing, our participants all had a wonderful day.