The effects of losing a parent vary depending on the child’s age. If a child you love has lost a parent, here’s how you can help.
Jessica was 6 years old when her father died. At times she felt incredibly sad. Others times, she got involved in a fun activity and forgot about her loss. While her mother was having trouble getting through the day, Jessica still looked forward to going to school and playing with her friends.
It appeared that Jessica was handling her grief better than her mother. In truth, though, Jessica and her mother were just grieving in different ways.
Children and loss
Children don’t have the ability to reflect on their feelings. Their minds protect them from emotions they aren’t yet able to handle. Instead, they commonly spend their lives moving in and out of grief. They feel the loss most on special occasions, like the day they graduate, get married or have a baby.
A child’s reaction to the death of a parent, and his understanding of death, varies with age.
Up to age 3
Children in this age group don’t understand death, but do pick up on the emotions of those around them. They sense the absence of the parent and may respond by:
- Being less active and responsive
- Crying more often
- Eating less
- Sleeping poorly
- Losing weight
Ages 3 to 5
In the preschool years, children have a limited understanding of death. They often:
- Believe death is temporary
- Think of it as “sleeping,” and believe the parent can come back
- Believe in magical thinking – that they caused the parent’s death because of something they thought or wished for
- Worry about being abandoned
- May start wetting the bed, regress to thumb-sucking, cry frequently, have trouble sleeping or become aggressive
- Complain of stomachaches, headaches or other physical ailments
Ages 6 to 12
School-age kids still have trouble grasping the reality of death. At this age they may:
- Ask many questions about death
- Find death frightening and think of it in terms of ghosts, monsters and skeletons
- Know that they will die one day, but still feel that death happens only to other people
- Become clingy, fearing something will happen to their surviving parent
- Feel abandoned
- Act out aggressively
- Have mood swings
- Have problems eating and sleeping
- Feel angry and guilty that they are alive and their parent is not
- Feel insecure about who will take care of them
Ages 13 to 18
Teenagers understand death to the same extent as adults, but do not have the same coping skills. They may:
- Be angry at family members.
- Behave impulsively or recklessly. This may include alcohol or drug abuse.
- Be uncomfortable expressing their feelings – or unable to.
- Question their religious beliefs and understanding of the world around them.
- Withdraw from family in favor of being alone or with friends.
Helping children to understand
A child who has lost a parent needs the support of loved ones. You can help by:
- Answering all questions honestly.
- Reassuring him that he will be well taken care of.
- Using language the child understands. Saying that “we’ve lost” the dead parent, that the parent is “sleeping” or that he or she was “taken” by God can be confusing to children.
- Sharing your spiritual or religious beliefs with her. If you believe in heaven, share that belief.
- Letting him know that it’s OK to talk about his parent and ask questions.
- Making sure she understands that she is not to blame for her parent’s death.
Signs of trouble
Talk to your doctor or seek professional counseling for a child who shows any of these signs:
- Depression and loss of interest in normal activities
- Loss of appetite
- Trouble sleeping and nightmares
- Clinging to the surviving parent
- Regression, such as bedwetting
- Withdrawal from friends and loved ones
- Statements of wanting to be with the parent he lost
- Poor school performance and attendance
- Angry outbursts
- Vandalism, stealing, substance abuse and other risky behaviors
- Panic attacks
Remembering the parent
Help the child remember his missing parent by telling funny stories, looking at pictures and keeping mementos that remind him of the parent he lost. Your children may find comfort in releasing balloons on a special day, such as the parent’s birthday. Tying a loving note to the balloon and watching it fly toward the heavens may be healing for both the child and the surviving parent.