Information for Families
Like adults, children and teens may feel intense sadness and loss, or grief, when a person close to them dies. And like adults, children and teens express their grief in how they behave, what they think and say, and how they feel emotionally and physically. Each child grieves differently, and there is no right or wrong way or length of time to grieve.
Some grief reactions cut across all age groups and developmental levels, and children may show their grief in many different ways. For example, grieving children or teens of any age may sleep or cry more than usual. They may regress and return to earlier behaviors, or they may develop new fears or problems in school. They may complain about aches and pains. They may be angry and irritable, or they may become withdrawn and isolate themselves from family and friends.
Bereaved children may also act in ways that those around them may not recognize as grief reactions. For example, a quiet toddler may have more tantrums, an active child may lose interest in things he or she used to do, or a studious teen may engage in risky behavior. Whatever a child’s age, he or she may feel unrealistic guilt about having caused the death. Sometimes bereaved children take on adult responsibilities and worry about surviving family members and who would care for them if something happened to their caregivers.
Childhood Traumatic Grief
After someone important dies, some children and teens may experience greater than usual sadness and upset and have a more intense reaction known as childhood traumatic grief. In childhood traumatic grief, children develop symptoms associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Children may be more likely to experience traumatic grief if the death was sudden or traumatic, if it occurred under terrifying circumstances, or if the child witnessed or learned of horrific details surrounding the death. Also, although posttraumatic stress reactions may occur after someone has been killed suddenly, they may also occur when the death was expected (such as following a long illness or disabling injury).
Not all children who experience the death of someone special under traumatic circumstances develop traumatic grief. However, in some cases, children may develop symptoms that interfere with their ability to grieve and to have comforting memories of the person who died. Traumatic grief may also interfere with everyday activities such as being with friends and doing schoolwork. PTSD symptoms in children with traumatic grief can include:
In general, if it becomes apparent that your child or teen is having very upsetting memories, avoiding activities or feelings, or experiencing physical, emotional, or learning problems, he or she may be having a traumatic grief reaction. (See Table 1 for examples of common and traumatic grief reactions in children at various ages.)
You may wish to seek help or counseling for your child or teen if grief reactions seem to continue without any relief, if they appear for the first time after an initial period of relative calm, if they get worse, or if they interfere with your child’s being with friends, going to school, or enjoying activities.
Table 1. Children’s Understanding of Death and Reactions to Grief
Preschool and young children学龄前儿童和幼儿
Understanding of death对死亡的理解
- Do not understand that death is final.
- May think that they will see the person again or that the person can come back to life.
- May think it was their fault that the person died.
Common grief reactions通常的悲痛反应
- May become upset when their routines change.
- May get worried or fussy when apart from their usual caregivers and may be clingy and want extra attention.
- May express fears, sadness, and confusion by having nightmares or tantrums, being withdrawn, or regressing to earlier behaviors.
Traumatic grief reactions 创伤性悲痛反应
- May repetitively engage in play about the death or the person who died.
- May have problems getting back on schedule or meeting developmental milestones.
- May have difficulty being comforted.