When Children Grieve: What to Expect from Toddlers to Teens

little girl standing in a cemetery of gravestones

When grief has seized control of our lives, we want to know—how long will the suffering last? When children grieve, the question becomes even more imperative.

Will the nightmares ever subside?

Will my son find joy in playing his instrument again?

Will my daughter smile again during our family game night?

We can’t bear to see them in pain any longer than necessary—let alone at all. 

Unfortunately, grief has no exact expiration. Nor does it play by the rules. The depth and duration depends on each child and each situation. And at least a portion of grief can stay with a child forever.

Many of us are familiar with the commonly referenced stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But perhaps fewer of us know that these grief stages, which can also be seen in children, aren’t set in stone. In fact, it would be rare for grief to ever appear exactly as these stages describe or in such a specific order. 

So, what can we expect from children mourning tragedy, death, and loss? 

Re-Defining the Phases of Grief

Perhaps the best way to define the progression of grief is that we can’t define it. Yet one reason the five stages of grief have become so widespread could be the sense of structure and reliability they convey. They offer sufferers specific feelings to look for and expect.

Even though we’ve established that grief follows no guidelines, it’s easy to understand that people still want a concrete prescription to turn to. One possible alternative is Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s 6 Needs of Mourning

In it, he describes what all mourners experience at some point along their journey. This includes: acknowledging the reality of the death, embracing the pain of the loss, remembering the person who died, developing a new self-identity, searching for meaning, and receiving ongoing support from others. 

While we can look for and recognize the processes our grieving children are going through, there are other common grief responses that children exhibit. 

The intensity of these responses can vary, and they likely won’t appear in a particular order. The emotions stemming from their grief may also range from confused, scared, and angry to anxious, depressed, and numb—and everything in between. 

Progression of grief definition

Typical Grief Responses in Children

Regression in Behavior and at School

A certain amount of regression in grieving children is normal. A night-trained 6-year old might start bedwetting, or a 4-year-old might start sucking his thumb. 

A twelve-year-old that kicked the whining habit years ago might start up again. A teenager might forego her usual chores or avoid any extra responsibilities.

Unfortunately, behavior and progress at school can alter just as much as it does at home. A well-behaved pre-schooler might start getting in trouble by pushing friends on the playground or being disruptive at circle time. An advanced, all “A”s high-school student might start failing classes or forget to attend his extracurricular activities. 

While we want to keep our kids on track as much as possible, we can be assured that the sudden setbacks are very likely a result of the grief they’re weathering. They’re simply overwhelmed—both mentally and emotionally. 

It may be hard to see regression as anything but negative, but allowing grieving children some leniency is important. We can also remind ourselves that as children work through grief at their own pace, they’ll eventually return to the same level of success, independence, and functionality they had before their loss. 

Separation Anxiety/Clinginess

Grief is a time when children may not want to be left alone. Little ones might cry when we leave the house—or even leave the room—more than they once did. Older kids could choose to tag along with us on errands they’ve avoided before. 

When overcome with grief, children might find solitude not only intimidating, but unbearable. Maybe, after the loss of an older family member, they have a heightened fear of being abandoned. Or, perhaps they’re just afraid of their thoughts. Regardless, any needy, helpless, and unusually attached behavior reflects a need for companionship and emotional connection. 

Letting our kids stick by our side, and even enlisting the help of family and friends to play with or “hang out” with grieving kids can give them the extra dose of care, affection, and even distraction they desire. 

It’s also common for grieving kids to connect with a person, either a familiar face or a new one, that reminds them of a lost loved one. This can be beneficial and might fill a void—just as long as it’s understood that their loved one can never be fully replicated or replaced (which would also be an unfair—and impossible—standard for anyone to live up to).

Apathy or Withdrawal 

It’s not unusual for children to sometimes act as though a loss never even occurred. 

While children may appear unaffected by tragedy, death, or loss, this is likely far from the case. Maybe they’re unwilling to confront the loss just yet, can only handle grief for brief spurts of time, or are modeling the restrained reactions of their parents or caregivers. 

Children can also step in and out of grief more easily than adults. 

“Children’s grief is like jumping in and out of puddles. They can be very sad one minute and very happy the next. You need to give them opportunities to be both.”

Julia Samuel, British psychotherapist and counselor. 

So while kids might be playful and acting normally one minute, they can also withdraw socially from friends and avoid activities the next. 

They may also seem numb to things around them—like being uninterested in the fun day at the water park you’ve planned, the movie their friends are attending, or the fact that grandpa and grandma are flying in for a visit. In this case, the grief—like depression—is taking the joy out of normally pleasurable events. 

On some level this is normal, especially considering the recency of the loss. But it’s always good to keep a close eye on signs of depression and anxiety. If you’re concerned, consider finding your child a counselor or therapist. 

Physical Ailments & Sleep/Appetite Disturbances

We know that common stressors can keep us up all night, morph into back and shoulder pain, and even appear as bodily tics and twitches. 

Imagine what grief can do.

We can expect a certain amount of sleeplessness, nightmares, and/or night terrors from a grieving child. We can expect a loss of appetite or bingeing on comfort foods. 

But we can also see grief in a variety of physical ailments. It might be a teenager’s headache that has lasted for days or a toddler’s frequently upset tummy. 

It’s helpful to know these physical responses can be common; but again, it’s important to see a doctor when we have concerns.

Guilt

Guilt is very common amongst anyone grieving death and loss, and children are no exception. 

Younger children, when they don’t fully understand the concepts of death, may feel they’re responsible for the loss—especially when they’re wired to be more preoccupied with their own needs and have the belief that everything in the world revolves around them. 

A preschooler who hit her friend—after she stole her toy last week—may feel she’s the reason her young friend tragically passed away.  

Older kids are also susceptible to guilt. A teenager who gave his friend the cold shoulder last month may feel partly to blame when that depressed, bullied friend takes his own life.

Naturally, it’s of ultimate importance to remind children that they are not responsible for these tragic events. We need to also consider that it may take time and additional resources—like consistent counseling—for them to understand this fact. 

Interest in Death

Grieving kids might ask questions about tragedy and loss repeatedly. Young kids might become interested in dead things like the upside-down beetle in the driveway and the lifeless bird on the porch. Older children might become drawn to darker themes in books, music, movies, and video games. 

Even kids that aren’t dealing with grief are commonly obsessed with the morbid and bleak. They are trying to understand the world around them and the challenging concepts that even adults fail to grasp. 

A loved one’s death or personal loss just intensifies these questions.

Risk-Taking & Aggression

One of the most distressing aspects of grief is the possibility that children will internalize it in a negative way. 

Older children, especially, might engage in risky behavior. “They may drive recklessly, get into fights, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or use drugs. They may become involved in sexual activity or delinquency.” After a Loved One Dies—How Children Grieve by David J Schonfeld, MD

Younger children can also express their grief through hostility and/or self-harm. A 5-year-old girl struggling with anger from her parents’ divorce might start bullying her younger brother or try pulling out her own hair.  

Aggression, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts can all emerge during times of grief. Naturally, it’s imperative to intervene in any of these situations with professional assistance as quickly as possible.

Psychological Changes

Another serious concern is the prospect of grief leaving life-long, psychological implications. Children are still developing mentally—with rapidly evolving brains, personalities, and intellect—and it’s possible that grief can leave an intense, life-shaping impression.

Studies of adults with various mental disorders, especially depression, frequently reveal childhood bereavement, suggesting that such loss may precipitate or contribute to the development of a variety of psychiatric disorders and that this experience can render a person emotionally vulnerable for life. This special vulnerability of children is attributed to developmental immaturity and insufficiently developed coping capacities.- Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences, and Care

Regardless of these implications, please don’t be disheartened. By no means is it a foregone conclusion that children struck by tragedy, death, and loss will have challenging futures

On the contrary, grief can strengthen children and give them a greater appreciation for the beauty and complexity of life. But, grieving children do need appropriate support from loved ones and constructive coping mechanisms to shape their grief as positively as possible. The book Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences, and Care, states that children with a reliable adult addressing their needs—including the need to explore and express feelings of grief—can adapt and overcome loss in a healthy, positive way.

Disenfranchised and Secondary Grief

Disenfranchised Grief

Not all grief comes from death or tragedy. Children can feel intense sorrow from a variety of other situations and need to process these changes the same way other grievers do. 

This is called disenfranchised grief.

It’s so-named because the cause of this grief isn’t considered—at least by society at large—a “justifiable” reason to mourn. Regardless, it is felt acutely by the person it affects and can’t simply be dismissed or ignored.

A 3-year-old could experience disenfranchised grief after the death of her pet gerbil. It could be a foster child distraught over moving to a new home. Maybe it’s your teenager, devastated after his girlfriend broke up with him. Or, it could be a preteen struggling with the reaction she received when she told her parents she’s gay.

No one, especially a parent, has the right to tell a child that his or her feelings are unworthy, unnecessary, or insignificant. No matter the cause, our feelings are often out of our control. This is especially true for children still learning to manage their raw emotions. Teaching a child how to cope with grief, rather than dismiss it, will help them more than anything. 

Secondary Loss/Grief

Secondary losses result from a primary loss. Essentially, they’re the collateral damage produced by death, tragedy, and grief. 

If your 10-year-old daughter just had to move to a new school due to your recent divorce from her father, the grief she feels from the loss of her school and friends would be secondary to the loss she feels from the divorce.  

Just like disenfranchised grief, secondary losses may not be accepted or appreciated for their potential severity. If we are aware of them, however, we can better prepare our children and ourselves to cope with these added stressors.

The secondary losses and disenfranchised grief of a family member or friend can also affect a child. We all know that depression doesn’t just hurt the people it affects. It harms all of the people that love them, too. So when a child’s parent or caregiver is grieving, whether it’s about bankruptcy, the death of a coworker, or a crisis of faith, children may grieve, too. 

When to Seek Help

If all of these grief responses are common, when is it important to seek help? Especially if there are no set guidelines or timelines for grief?

Again, any signs of aggression or self-harm need to be addressed by a mental health specialist immediately. But for other common, less severe responses, the answer is less clear.

One of the best indicators that our children are progressing healthily through grief is when the intensity and frequency of their grief responses lessens over time. If our teenager is averaging a little more sleep each week, he is improving. If our 5-year-old daughter starts playing with her friends despite frequent tears, then she is recovering.

But, what if symptoms persist—or escalate? 

According to the Child Mind Institute, “…symptoms that persist beyond six months or are very impairing can indicate that your child may need professional help to overcome her grief.” 

These symptoms can include the more common grief responses; from sleep and appetite disturbances to regression and apathy. If they worsen or linger longer than the six-month time frame, it’s time to seek professional help from a grief counselor, support group, or psychiatrist. 

Final Thoughts

Loss is both heart-wrenching and unavoidable at some point in all of our lives. While we hope our children will avoid exposure to death and loss in their childhood, we can’t always protect them from life’s most painful realities.

It could be a few weeks before they crack a smile or a few months before they laugh out loud. To a certain degree, some of the grief will always be a part of them. 

But with our help and love, grief will never define them.

About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the best selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.