What Are the 5 Stages of Grief for Kids?

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Children experience grief much the same way as adults do. Family members can be the greatest asset to helping a child heal from their suffering following a significant loss. Grief healing is a continual process that manifests differently in each child as they grow and mature. What are the specific stages of grief for kids?

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Kids affected by severe trauma are vulnerable to grief that can later develop into psychological and social problems if left unattended or untreated. The effects of grief can last a lifetime in some children who never learn to process their pain early on. 

Supportive measures to counteract children's suffering and other adverse developments can include solid emotional support from their families, peers, and educational institutions. 

Parents and grief support professionals can tailor their approach to emotional and psychological healing for children affected by loss by learning and understanding the stages of grief for kids and what they look like in children of all ages. In this guide, we’ll break down the 5 stages of grief for kids. 

Do Children Grieve Differently Than Adults?

To understand how to help a grieving child, you may want to first pay attention to the types of grief the child's exhibiting. Children and adults experience their grief differently from one another. Although they both undergo the same grieving process, they won't interpret their suffering the same. Children and adults attribute their trauma to their emotional maturity and understanding of grief. Thus, how they view significant tragedies affect how they perceive their losses. 

Children often categorize their losses based on how those events influence their immediate lives. In contrast, adults can usually process loss based on the many factors that shape their relationship with the deceased, not solely on their direct losses. Where a child might self-blame and feel shame when a parent dies, an adult might view the same loss as an inevitable part of the human life cycle. Each interpretation yields different emotional, psychological, and physical pain. 

A child who's coping with the death of a loved one may struggle with the challenges of what to do with their grief while simultaneously trying to adjust to their changed circumstances due to their loss. This is normal and expected, but it can differ by the specific child. 

Because children generally aren't experienced enough in life to know how to manage their lives after a loss, they become confused about what they're feeling and how to deal with those emotions. In contrast, an adult generally knows and understands what it means to die, the permanency of death, and what feelings and emotions they can expect to experience when someone they know dies. 

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The Stages of Grief for Children

With that in mind, what are the stages of grief for children? How much different are they from the stages of grief for adults? Past clinical studies and research found that almost everyone who experiences loss will go through certain stages of grief. 

Some of the typical grief responses in children and adults include emotional, physical, behavioral, and social reactions to loss. Kids feel losses more profoundly than others. The grief reactions largely depend on the child’s emotional maturity, experience with loss, and relationship with the deceased. 

Unfortunately, parents, caregivers, and other adults typically ignore children’s suffering because they fail to consider a child’s capability of acknowledging and understanding death. The following is how the stages of grief might break down for a child after having suffered a traumatic loss.

1. Denial

When a child first hears the news that someone they know and love died, they may not immediately grasp the finality of the situation. Depending on the child's age, processing time might take several hours to several weeks. The death of a parent, for example, might not immediately affect very young children as they don't yet know how to process the meaning of loss. 

Many children feel their parent's absence but won't typically associate death with why they're not present. A child in this stage of grieving might exhibit separation anxiety. Older children who recognize the meaning of loss might show a behavioral regression at home, at school, or among their peers. Things to look for are social withdrawal from the people and activities they once enjoyed, acting out with their school teachers, or going silent at home. 

2. Anger 

Being angry at the death of a close loved one or even a beloved pet is a normal and natural response to loss among kids. They often process their losses through the lens that the world is unfair. 

Anger affects many children and teens. Parents, caregivers, and teachers typically fail to associate a child lashing out with grief. In some cases, this might result in punishment to address the issue. Common examples of grief-related anger include:

  • Picking fights at home with their parents or siblings
  • Bullying kids at school
  • Name-calling teachers
  • Rebelling against authority

After suffering a significant loss, an angry child may also engage in risky behavior such as promiscuity, reckless driving, and experimenting with illicit drugs or alcohol. Anger is a normal feeling for both children and adults, but children often have fewer healthy outlets for anger. 

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3. Bargaining

Next, children are known for engaging in magical thinking to process their grief. The bargaining stage includes the belief or idea that a bereaved individual might somehow change the outcome of a tragic situation if they will it strongly enough. 

Magical thinking in children’s grief causes them to think and believe that they were somehow responsible for their parent’s death. This could be, for example, because of something they said, did, or didn’t do. They spend many days lamenting over what they believe directly contributed to the outcome, even when their thoughts and ideas are irrational and have nothing to do with it. 

Although younger children up to the age of 7 commonly experience this magical thinking stage, older children and teens can also suffer from these thoughts. An older child may try to bargain with God or their higher power by pledging to do their chores or earning higher school marks if only they can have their loved one back. 

4. Depression 

Depression is another one of the five stages of grief a child might experience. Depression in grieving children, especially those who've suffered the death of a parent or sibling, begins to set in within the first two years following this type of loss. 

Depression affects a grieving child in many different ways. Recognizing the signs of depression in kids may help with early intervention and treatment. While it's normal for a child to be sad after a significant loss, prolonged feelings of guilt, hopelessness, or anger may signal a more substantial issue. Examples of what depression in children and teens look like include:

  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns 
  • Withdrawal from family, friends, and activities
  • Irritability or anger
  • Obsession with death

Any of the above signs could be a red flag, and it’s a sign they might need more professional help. A counselor, support group, or trusted loved one can help children and teens through more complex bouts of depression. 

5. Acceptance

The final stage in the grieving process involves accepting the loss and moving on from the debilitating pain and suffering felt in the beginning. Unlike common belief, the acceptance stage of grief doesn’t signal an end to grieving. It simply signals a transition to healing. A child who’s learned to accept their loss will alternate between moments of joy and happiness to feeling sad and missing their loved one, sometimes without warning. 

Usually, these ebbs and flows are more prevalent during the holidays, birthdays, and other special occasions when they feel their loved one’s absence is the greatest. Reaching significant life milestones is also a time when children feel the effect of how their life has changed after their loss. They may find themselves reverting to the earlier stages of grief and re-working through those earlier emotions. 

How Can You Support a Child Through All Stages of Grief?

Supporting a grieving child often presents challenges, especially when their parents or caregivers are also processing their grief. Adults tend to overlook grief and mourning in children and adolescents for various reasons.

A caregiver may go through the effort to protect a child from the details or circumstances of their loss, which complicates the child’s grieving process. Alternatively, they may not know where to begin helping a child get through their loss or how to talk to them about their experience. 

While most children can cope with significant setbacks, keeping the truth from them or avoiding talking about the loss contributes to their confusion and adverse grief reactions. Some children may refuse to open up and talk about their feelings, while others want to know every detail about what happens after death.

Their questions may make you feel uncomfortable, but answering them as truthfully and thoroughly as possible is essential. A child needs to trust the communication between you, and they also need to feel that it's safe to talk about death and grieving.  

Parents, caregivers, and others in a position to intervene in a child’s grieving must learn to cater to their specific needs to try and help a child resolve their grief. Caregivers should consider whether to seek professional grief counseling for children or enlist the help of peer-support groups within their communities. There are many community and school resources ready to help grieving children and their parents make sense of their loss and the effects of grief.

How Can You Explain the Stages of Grief to a Child?

When explaining the stages of grief to a young person, consider the child's age and maturity, along with their ability to conceptualize death. Some young children can understand death when explained to them using terms that they'll appreciate and are appropriate to their age. 

You may want to consider using metaphors as examples of what happens when we die or taking a pet's recent death to explain how grief works. Avoid using euphemisms that only serve to confuse a child further. Saying things like, "she's in a better place," or "may he rest in peace" can confuse a child. Kids may start thinking that death is impermanent, giving them false hope that their loved one will one day return. 

In older children, it helps when you continue the conversation by identifying how their lives have changed since the loss, their fluctuating feelings and emotions, and what they've done to develop healthy coping strategies. Every child, at any age, will assign perceived meaningfulness to their loss, and they'll build their narratives of how their life has changed due to their loss. 

You can take these experiences and weave them into an explanation of how a person suffers through loss at different stages. Most importantly, it’s important to share how their grief will not look or feel the same as time goes on. Opening up about your own grief as an adult can be a great way to have this conversation.

Children’s Grief Is Unique 

Childhood grief is unique from the adult grieving process, and children generally don’t have the cognitive and emotional maturity required to process their losses as an adult would. Helping children and teens deal with grief presents many challenges to parents and caregivers.

It’s normal to need to offer extra love and support, as well as the space needed to explore their grief-related feelings, following the death of a loved one or other significant loss of life. Together, you’ll come through this on the other side. 

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