Children Grieve Differently — Common reactions from age groups

Children grieve differently than adults. A grieving child will look just like any other child, but even though their grief may not be as outwardly expressed, it does not mean they are not grieving.

While each child will react differently to loss based on personality and age, these are a few common signs to help recognize grief:

  • Separation anxiety — child becomes “clingy,” has trouble saying “good-bye” to loved ones, fears
    leaving his or her parent(s), even for a short time.
  • Regression — child reverts to bed wetting or thumb sucking
  • Impatience — child becomes overly frustrated and angered during the course of daily activities
  • Withdrawal — child becomes unemotional, separates from his or her friends and family
  • Inattentive — child has trouble focusing in school
  • Protectiveness — child acts paternally towards his or her siblings

At what age are children able to mourn? Grief author Alan Wolfelt said, “Any child old enough to love
is old enough to mourn.” Below are a few more signs of grief broken out by age.

Preschool (2-4 years)

  • Sense of loss and sadness, but can’t comprehend death
  • May lack the vocabulary to express how they feel. Adults internalize feelings; children act them out.
  • Heightened fear of separation (a normal stage) from loved one lost and love ones living.
  • Death isn’t seen as permanent.
  • Very literal in their understanding (use care with abstract concepts such as heaven and “sleeping”).

Elementary School (5-9 years)

  • Experience the full range of emotions as any adult (sad, angry, guilty, lonely, etc).
  • Limited life exposure leaves little understanding of what’s happening.
  • Often assume they were to blame in some way.
  • Better understanding that death is final as they age up.
  • Many worries about who will care for them, and if other caretakers will also die, leaving them alone.

Middle School (9-12 years)

  • Experience the full range of emotions.
  • Social dimension of death and its impact on family, friends and school may emerge.
  • If it is a parent loss, may want the parent to remarry or may resent a new person who, in their eyes, may take the place of the lost loved one.
  • Good understanding that death is final.
  • Many worries about caretakers.

High School (12-18 years)

  • Experience the full range of emotions.
  • Death has a social dimension with its impact on family, friends, school, etc.
  • Death of same sex parent can be especially traumatic for some through this stage of finding their identity. May, however, resent a “new” person in the surviving parent’s life.
  • Often raise philosophical questions about the meaning of life (this age range is a time when kids feel most “immortal” and death is a painful reality).
  • Exaggeration of normal adolescent behavior (moody, impulsive, risk taking, etc).

Note: Some children may have lost a loved one several years ago and are now just coping with feelings of not having a parent, grandparent or sibling, as they move into a new growth stage.

Grief does not have an end date, such as 6 months or a year. Grief is a life-long journey that will have highs and lows. It will ebb and flow, and will often be triggered by life events such as moving, graduation, weddings, etc.

Photo Credit.


  1. Alison Barnes said on August 27, 2010 at 6:36 pm ... #

    Thanks for this. Any articles on how to parent alone after the death of a spouse? Or suggestions on where to get such advice?

  2. Linda Arnold said on August 29, 2012 at 3:29 pm ... #

    This is so needed right now. I lost my sister, August 11th in a motorcycle accident, and my nieces all have children so they may need this info. Grandma Leah loved the grandkids so much and it is going to be so hard for them to know what to do or how to feel. I can’t imagine what is going through their little minds. Thank you for the info.

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