Helping children deal with grief and loss
Young children experience grief, loss and trauma in different ways. How they respond often depends on:
- their age
- the type of loss
- how their emotions are handled by their family or carers
Read on for advice on helping children to cope with their feelings.
Ways that children experience grief, loss and trauma
Children can experience grief and loss in response to:
- a death (of a pet, family member, friend, or someone else they knew)
- family break-up
- moving house or changing school
- losing a friend
- becoming ill or disabled
- having a family member in hospital
- being bullied or witnessing bullying at school
Each of these circumstances can bring on many strong emotions. All children express grief and loss differently. They may feel:
- shut down, or quiet
Sometimes they may seem confused and not understand what has happened. Other children may not appear affected at all. All of these feelings are normal.
How children deal with grief and loss can depend on:
- how much they understand
- how well they knew the person or are impacted by the event
- whether the loss was expected
- how their carers respond
They may cope well on some days and struggle on others.
Often children express grief and loss through behaviour rather than words. These behaviours can include anger, irritability or an inability to concentrate.They may also experience:
- stomach pain
- problems sleeping
- loss of appetite
It’s important to let your child know they are loved and cared for. Keeping to normal routines will help them to feel secure at this time.
How do I explain loss to a child?
After experiencing loss or grief, children may not be able to describe their feelings. This is because they may not fully understand what has happened or have words that match their experience. They may even think it is somehow their fault. It’s important to explain what’s happened in words they can understand.
Encourage the child to talk about how they’re feeling, if they can, and reassure them it is normal. If they can’t talk about it, you can help them express their feelings through:
- talking about how other kids might feel in the same situation
Encourage your child to talk to you when they have strong feelings. To comfort them, you can offer cuddles or use another strategy you know will help your child.
If you’re grieving yourself, show them that it’s OK to be sad. However, be considerate. Try not to overwhelm your child with your own emotions.
It is important that you don’t feel the need to protect your child by denying what’s going on. Children often imagine worse scenarios when they aren’t told the truth. Remember to share the truth in a way that is appropriate for them.
Your child will experience grief differently as they grow up. Each child will also respond differently. Look below for ways to help your child manage grief based on their age.
How do I help my toddler deal with grief and loss?
Toddlers may not understand that death is final. They may keep asking:
- if they can visit the person
- when they are coming back
Repeating questions is their way of trying to understand.
It is normal for toddlers to pick up old habits again when they are grieving. These may include:
- wetting the bed
- waking at night
- clinging to you
Give your child affection and try to be patient with them. Gently explain to them what has happened and that they won’t be able to see the person again. Reassure them that:
- you won’t leave them
- they are very loved
- what has happened is not their fault
How do I help my pre-schooler deal with grief?
Preschool-aged children may have trouble fully understanding what has happened. This misunderstanding may make it seem as though they don’t care. They may include death and grief in their play or they may have related dreams or nightmares. This is one way that they learn to understand the world.
At this age, children tend to take things literally. Try to explain things to them as simply and truthfully as possible. If you tell them ‘Grandma has gone to a better place’, they will want to go and visit her. It would be better to say ‘Grandma has died’.
Make sure you give the child plenty of reassurance and comfort. Stick to their normal routines. Try to be patient if they act out their emotions or misbehave.
Let the people in your child’s life know what has happened. That way, they can monitor their emotions when you’re not there. This can include notifying their:
- preschool teachers
- friends’ parents
How do I help my school-age child deal with grief?
As your child grows up, they will begin to understand that death is permanent. They may fear that:
- things will get worse
- they will lose someone else (typically their parent or sibling)
Tell them that everything’s going to be OK. Reassure them that another death is unlikely to happen any time soon.
They may be curious to better understand what has happened and ask questions about death. You can help by answering their questions in a way that suits their:
- developmental level
- learning level
- life experience
Remember it is better to be honest with your child. Their imagination will often come up with a worse scenario that the true one.
When to be concerned
Grief and loss can continue to affect children for years. However, their feelings will gradually diminish.
Sometimes a child will need additional support to deal with difficult emotions. It depends how often, how long and how severe their emotions or behaviours are.
You could consider seeking expert help if the child is withdrawn and won’t play with other children.
You can also seek help if your child behaves in a way that concerns you.
Remember to look after yourself
It can be very hard to look after a child who is dealing with grief and loss. This can be especially difficult if you are grieving yourself. Make sure you look after yourself so you can provide better care to the child. Try to seek support from your family, friends, or a health professional.
Where to go for help
For more information that could help your child contact:
- Kids helpline 1800 55 1800
- Trauma and Grief Network
- Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
- The National Centre for Childhood Grief 1300 654 556
Call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).
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Last reviewed: August 2022