When thinking about grief, there are typically 5 stages that come to mind, including: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. These stages of grief are considered primary responses to a loss. Someone that is grieving may go through these stages in any order and may return to previous stages. It is important to note that each person’s grief varies based on where they are developmentally. Outlined below are different signs and symptoms that might be present in toddlerhood through adolescence when grieving. In order to better understand how development level impacts grief, it can be helpful to gather a basic understanding of the 5 stages of grief first.
The denial stage is characterized by individuals refusing or having a difficult time accepting the fact that a loss has occurred. During this stage, individuals may minimize or deny the situation and might make statements such as “this can’t be happening to me.” It is important that this stage not be prolonged and loved ones can help by being forward and honest about the loss.
When someone is in the anger stage, they have realized that a loss has occurred and may become angry at themselves. When someone is in this stage, they might argue that the situation is unfair and also place blame on others.
In the bargaining stage, someone may try to change or delay their loss. This is characterized by individuals trying to search for unlikely cures in the case of a terminal illness. Someone in this stage might make statements such as “I will do anything to change this.”
When someone is in the depression stage, they have come to recognize that a loss has occurred or will occur. They may isolate themselves and spend time crying. Depression tends to be a precursor to the acceptance stage because the individual has come to recognize their loss. Statements to look out for during this stage include, “What’s the point of going on after this loss?”
In the acceptance stage, an individual will come to accept their loss. During this stage, they begin to understand the situation logically and they have come to terms emotionally with the situation and might make a statement such as “It will be okay.”
For parents and caregivers that are looking after a child that is experiencing grief, below are some behaviors and changes to look out for while the child is grieving.
Not easily soothed
Changes in sleep
Changes in appetite
For infants/toddlers, It is important to try and maintain consistency and routine. Providing nurturance and physical reassurance/soothing touch can be helpful.
Preschool Aged Children:
Regressive behaviors (acting younger than they are)
Believe death is temporary
Parents, at this age, children’s questions might feel painful. However, it is important to talk to them about death. Providing simple and repeated explanations can be beneficial. Also, using terms such as dead and died and acknowledging feelings will help your child through the grieving process.
Early Elementary School Ages 6-9:
Increased somatic complaints (e.g., stomachaches and headaches)
Magical thinking (e.g., thinking something will appear or happen because they wished for it)
Parents, at this age, it is important to know that children begin to move from concrete to abstract thinking and begin to realize that death is final and have a more clear understanding. At this age, children may begin asking questions about the cause of death and consequences. For parents and other caregivers, it is important to be truthful about the cause and circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one. This can be done by using simple and honest words and giving choice for the child to participate in the burial/memorial service process as appropriate.
Late Elementary/Middle School Ages 10-13:
Realize death is irreversible and universal
Curious about biology of death and dying
Increased questions about death and dying
Realization of own mortality
Changes in grades
Change in social functioning
Sleep or appetite disturbances
Lack of feelings
Children at this age will benefit from allowing them space to vent their feelings and offering physical outlets. It is important for parents and caregivers to be direct and honest and to not make promises that cannot be kept.
High school Ages 14-17
Worries about the future
Assumption of new ideas (often related to the deceased)
Reckless or Self-destructive behaviors
Feelings of isolation or not fitting in
Regression to a less mature state
When teens are grieving, it is important to respect privacy, avoid power struggles and to explore thoughts and feelings while being honest.
For more information on how parents and caregivers can help support their child through the grieving process, please reference the blog post: Helping Kids Cope: Ways to Support Children Through Grief .
When To Seek Additional Support
It is important to remember that each child is going to grieve in their own way and listed above are just some ways that they may manifest their grief depending on developmental level. If you or your child are struggling with managing symptoms of grief, therapy may be a helpful next step. Therapy can be a safe space for children and their parents to ask questions about death and grief, explore emotions and learn healthy coping strategies for managing those emotions.
At Balanced Minds Psychology & Wellness we specialized in assisting children and their families with navigating life’s challenges. To learn more about me and the services I provide, checkout my profile. If you are ready to start the therapy process, contact us today to start a free consultation.