The way in which a child grieves and their understanding of death is influenced by their age and developmental level. Understanding your child’s developmental stage can help you know how to talk to your child about their grief.
Ages 2-4: Children at this age think in the present moment, therefore their grief is in the present moment. They do not think death is permanent or forever. Children at this age are very concrete thinkers and cannot understand abstract ideas like death. Their best understanding of death can be explained in what happens to the body. For example, “Grandpa died. His heart stopped beating so his body couldn’t work anymore. He died.”
Ages 5-7: Children at this age begin to understand connections and are interested in the process. They may begin to ask questions like “how” and “why” their special person died as they begin to gain a basic understanding of the death. They are still concrete thinkers at this age. You could say, “Grandpa died because he had problems with his heart that could not be fixed by medicine or doctors. His heart stopped working and he died.”
Ages 8-11: Children at this age understand the finality of death. Children are detail oriented at this age and may ask very specific questions about the death. They may begin to show more emotions when processing their grief. They may ask, “What was the problem with Grandpa’s heart?” As a parent you want to answer honestly and basically. “His heart became too weak and could not deliver as much blood to the body as it should and then his body couldn’t do all of its important jobs to stay alive.”
Ages 12-18: Children are developing their identity and self-esteem at this age. They understand and can conceptualize death. Teens understand their world from an egocentric perspective. Often, they feel that no one understands what they are going through. They may look to peers or people outside of their family for support as they process their grief. Be honest about the death as this builds trust between the parent and teen. Offer to answer any questions they have and emotional support if and when they need it.
Your child’s grief will shift over time as they enter into different developmental stages. It is very normal for grief to surge during these developmental shifts. This occurs because your child can process death using increased levels of abstract thinking and with more complex emotions.
There are many ways you can support your child through these developmental stages.
- Encourage your child to ask questions and let your child know that they can ask you anything.
- Be truthful and open with your child and build trust and safety with them.
- Find a special way to remember the special person with your child.
- Offer to connect them with child and teen therapy services for additional support as they navigate their grief and developmental changes.