Losing a parent is devastating at any age; and experiencing the death of a parent during childhood leads to a grief process that varies depending on the child's developmental level. Children may process grief in many facets, including mental, emotional, physical, social and spiritual. If a child you know has lost a parent, it can be helpful to understand how they are affected by this trauma, and what you can do to support them.
How a Parent's Death Affects a Child at Various Ages
How a child experiences the loss of a parent can depend on their individual personality as well as their developmental stage. The ways in which a child expresses their grief can help determine how you can best comfort them.
For infants (ages zero-two), grief is experienced particularly as a physical absence. Parents are active caregivers in their baby's life, often holding, comforting, changing, and feeding them. A baby's response to the loss of a parent may be exhibited as changes in patterns of eating, sleeping, and bowel and bladder movements. In this situation, it's important to offer the infant physical comfort: holding and cuddling by a caregiver who is physically nurturing. It is also beneficial to give the infant the stability of a routine during this enormous time of change.
Preschoolers (ages three-five) view death as something that is temporary or reversible. In their eyes, the parent who has passed away continues to live and function in some ways. A child of this age might think that at some point in the future, their parent will return. Preschoolers might also feel responsible for the death. That is, if they have had a recent conflict with the deceased parent, the child might think that is the reason the parent died.
Preschoolers express their grief primarily through play. Examples include drawing the parent, and using a doll or action figure to represent the parent. You can support a preschooler by playing a part in the child's game with dolls, or by asking the child questions about what they are drawing.
A child at this age may also repetitively ask questions about their parent's death. It is important to answer their questions honestly and in a simple manner that they can understand. For example, "Daddy's car accidentally hit another car."
Children in this age range (six-11) are able to start understanding death as permanent. They may also personify death, such as by seeing it as a person or ghost that comes and takes people away. Kids at this age tend to be curious about death, ask specific questions, and want details. They might also be concerned with how others are doing and dealing with the loss. It is important to answer a child's questions honestly and simply, share your feelings with them, and show and tell them that it is okay to express their grief.
Expressing Emotions About Death
When you've lost a loved one, crying in front of a child is completely natural. Grieving the loss of a person dear to you, and sympathizing with your child, models that it's okay to show emotions and vulnerability. This will help kids feel more open to grieving the loss of their parent as well.
Anger may be part of the grieving process for some children, and they may show aggression in response. Talk to your child and help them identify their emotions; and teach them constructive ways of expressing their anger. Examples include hitting a punching bag, jumping on a trampoline, and pounding play-dough. Expressing your own anger in constructive ways is also a great way to model healthy coping.
How a Parent's Death May Affect Adolescents
In adolescence (ages 12 and older), kids have a more mature understanding of death. They understand that it is permanent and universal. They also start to explore death from a spiritual perspective and wonder what happens to their parent after they died. In this case, encourage them in their search for meaning, calmly listen to their thoughts and feelings, and address their questions.
Note that "I don't know" is a very acceptable answer, and is probably what you often think when it comes to large, existential questions. This also shows your child that it's okay to not always have an answer. You can help your child deal with uncertainty by having them focus on what is in their control. For example, "I don't know what happens to us after we die, but this loss is reminding me to enjoy life as much as possible, and to be loving toward others."
At this older stage of development, adolescents grieve with a wider range of emotions, from anger to sadness to guilt. They also start to show repression, denial, and depression. As a result, adolescents might act out, withdraw, show mood swings and act impulsively (including sexual impulsivity).
How to Support an Adolescent Whose Parent Has Died
Adolescence is a period of flux because your child is individuating from you at the same time that they still depend on you in most areas of their life. This is what often leads to the push-pull behavior that you might experience from them. One moment they might yell at you for a rule they find unfair, and the next moment they could ask for help with homework.
In helping adolescents deal with the loss of a parent, be available to them, but don't always take control. Some examples are:
- If your kid is yelling their frustration but not using profanity or being disrespectful, you can let them vent rather than telling them to calm down.
- Make sure an adult is always present when your child is with their peers in order to prevent behavior that is not appropriate, such as sexual activity or alcohol or drug use.
- Sometimes your kid might just need to express their feelings without talking about them. If your kid comes and cries on your shoulder and doesn't want to talk at that moment, respect their wishes. All they might have needed is to be with you and cry.
Grief and Mental Health
It is estimated that about five percent of children in the US (1.5 million) lose one or both parents by the age of 15. In addition to experiencing grief, children dealing with the loss of a parent are at higher risk for mental health disorders such as depression, problems with functioning, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The peak for onset of these issues was found to be within the first two years after the loss.
If your child dealt with mental health issues prior to the death of their parent, these issues could be exacerbated after the death. Seeking professional help such as psychotherapy for your child, is important to help them with the grief process, and with any mental health disorders they have.
Trust the Process
Grief is not a linear process; it is more like taking ten steps forward and six steps back. One day you might find it easier to laugh when thinking of your loved one, and the next day you could feel sad and angry... but you do slowly get closer to acceptance. This is very much the same process that kids go through. What is important is that they are allowed to grieve, and supported in a way that is appropriate to their developmental level.