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Grief: Helping Children Understand

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Emotional development

Consider your child's age and emotional development so that you can explain loss and death in a way that he or she will understand.

  • Children younger than 2 years of age cannot express in words what is going on in their lives. You need to reassure the child by holding and cuddling him or her. Stroking the child while softly talking, singing, or humming can be very soothing. Smile often, and approach the child at his or her eye level.
  • Children between 2 and 3 years of age are just learning to use words to express themselves. Talk with your child using some of the same words he or she uses. Speak clearly, but be brief when you explain a loss to your child. Give your child a choice whenever possible. For example, you can say, "Mommy and Daddy need to go to the hospital to see Grandpa. You are going to Aunt Jane's. Do you want to put some toys in this bag to take with you?"
  • Children between 3 and 6 years of age often believe that their thoughts and wishes cause things to happen. You can reassure your child that he or she did not cause the "bad" thing to happen. You can say, "Joey fell from the tree and hit his head. I know you were there and you might think you made it happen because you were angry with Joey. It's okay to be angry with someone. Your anger didn't cause Joey to fall."
  • Children between 6 and 10 years of age don't always fully understand events that occur in their lives. They may understand only part of what is going on around them. They may invent conclusions or draw the wrong conclusions about things they don't understand, resulting in misconceptions about what is happening. They may develop fears, such as fear of death.
  • Children between 10 and 12 years of age are able to understand loss the way adults do. They see death as permanent and irreversible. They often want to be included in all activities as though they were adults. Include your child in the activities related to the loss, such as choosing a house when you are moving.
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: May 10, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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