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About Project 4: How children understand death

By Dr. Gail Noller, LCSW, MA, PsyD, LP
Northtown Psychological Associates

How each child deals with death depends upon the age of the child, language skills, knowledge, coping style and experience. The following are some descriptions of what may be expected at different ages, understanding that each child is unique and there will be variations based on personality and cultural differences.

Infants to age 2

There is little understanding of death, but these children are exceptionally sensitive to the emotional environment of the home. They sense the pain and change, and react to the emotional tenor of those around them. They may be more irritable and require holding, stroking, reassurance in calm tones. They benefit from consistent caregivers.

Ages 2 - 5

This child is particularly reactive to the emotional tenor of the home and the disruption of routine. She may regress to earlier behavior if threatened, such as thumb-sucking, wetting pants, tantrums, etc. Restoring routine and providing consistent caregivers can be very helpful.

Magical thinking is prevalent, so the child may believe she caused the death. The child needs reassurance that this is not true. Also, the child may assign great power to adults such as the other parent or the doctor. She may blame them for the death believing that if they really wanted to, they could have prevented this death.

Concrete thinking is characteristic of this age, thus it is important to use the real language, simple, and direct with no euphemisms. “Lost,” “passed away,” or “asleep” are confusing and frightening. “Death is when the whole body stops working” is the best approach, using examples of dead birds, insects and animals that have been observed in the past.

Most children of this age group do not have the ability to understand the permanence of death - death is always reversible, or temporary. It is still important to talk the “real language”, but don’t be surprised if the child expects the deceased to come back.

Ages 6 - 9

This age child likes to be included in the family conversation about the death, and has a greater capacity to understand. He also gets satisfaction out of “doing,” so that giving him age-related tasks can be helpful. Writing a poem, drawing a picture, or writing a letter to be placed in the casket or hung on the wall is appropriate.

Death becomes real and irreversible for this age group, which can be a profound realization. Death might be personified as a boogy man or a skeleton, and is usually seen as an external force. This child may fear that someone else will also die, so realistic reassurance that “most people live to a very, very old age” is helpful.

Ages 9 -12

These children are capable of more abstract thinking and often are fascinated by the biology of disease. They may also think that he death is a punishment for something they or someone else did wrong. They benefit from the same reassurance as younger children that they did not cause the death.

Peers become important to this age group. Some children may choose not to share with friends what is happening at home for fear of embarrassment, for being “different.” They may resent that their family is not “normal”.

Adolescents

Adolescents are naturally pushing away from the family and developing their own identity. This makes a death in the family particularly difficult. It creates a conflict: a desire to be helpful and involved in family matters, and at the same time a need to break away and find independence.

Peer relationships become paramount. However, most adolescents have little experience or ability in supporting a grieving friend. Often the peer support system is less than adequate for the adolescent, but there is resistance to turning to adults.

A sense of immortality flourishes in adolescence, thus the reality of the death of a family member is often a reality the adolescent would prefer to deny.

Occasionally the adolescent will try to “fill the shoes” of the parent or sibling who dies. This should be discouraged, since the adolescent needs to find his own identity during this critical time of development.

Children of all ages tend to grieve differently than adults. They may grieve briefly, in small snatches, and then rework the grief over and over again as they grow up and pass through different developmental stages. Major holidays, birthdays, graduations, weddings and childbirth will be times when the grief may again be strong. Adults can be most helpful when they allow this grief work to be repeatedly incorporated into the growing up experience.

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