Children under five years old are totally dependent on parents and caregivers for all of their physical and emotional needs. We know just how important these early years are for building secure attachments to those who care for them and how these early attachments shape the way a person sees and reacts to the world around them throughout their life.
If this pattern is interrupted though the death of a parent or caregiver, there can be a huge impact on the child. As with all childhoo1d grief, babies and young children will react in their own individual ways which are also specific to their age and stage of development.
Below we describe some common grief reactions and make suggestions on what may help.
Babies 0-12 months
Babies will react to a sense of loss of the person who cares for them. They rely on their senses for comfort and security and so they will be used to the scent of their caregiver and the way in which they are handled. Babies also recognise differences in facial expressions and sense changes in the emotional atmosphere.
These changes may lead to babies becoming more tearful and clingy with certain adults. They may appear generally unsettled and their sleeping and eating patterns could be affected.
We can help babies by maintaining familiar and regular meal, activity and sleep routines. It is helpful to avoid passing the baby around to different adults where possible, especially during feeding, bathing and at bedtime.
Wrapping the baby in an article of clothing belonging to the person who has died may bring comfort through its warmth and scent.
Toddlers 1-3 years
At this age, toddlers will recognise the absence of the person who has died but will be unable to understand what has happened. They too will pick up on the emotional atmosphere and may express their own emotions through changes in behaviours, becoming anxious of strangers, clingy to certain adults or aggressive in their play.
They may display temper tantrums or some regression in skills and behaviour. Their lack of understanding may lead to them asking the same questions repeatedly, including when the person who has died will be coming back.
Sticking to familiar routines and boundaries is very helpful for children in this age group. As is providing lots of reassurance and cuddles. Answering questions consistently and with patience can be difficult, especially when dealing with our own grief but it will help and these questions will eventually stop. Most importantly, it is good to find plenty of time to play and relax together. Children still need and benefit from physical activity and fun at this time.
Children 3-5 years
Young children are likely to struggle in understanding what death means. They may use the correct or appropriate language and give the impression that they understand what has happened, but they will be unable to understand the finality of death at this stage in their development.
As with toddlers, young children may become clingy, display tantrums or regressive behaviours and ask the same questions repeatedly. They may show signs of missing the person who has died but will often hop in and out of their sadness quite suddenly. This is known as ‘puddle jumping’ and is a natural, protective response to big emotions.
Young children may begin to act out the death in their play which is a normal way of processing and understanding what has happened. It is quite common that young children will think that something they said or did somehow caused the death.
Lots of patience, reassurance and cuddles will help young children, along with clear, simple, repeated explanations of what happened. Continue to maintain routines and boundaries as well as activities, fun and relaxation. It is important to talk about the person who has died, sharing stories and photographs. If you need some help with young children, try to arrange for family or friends to look after them in your own home where they are still able to see you.
Help and support
SeeSaw’s Clinical Practitioners can provide you with further advice on supporting children of all ages who have experienced a bereavement. You can contact us by following the link on our website or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also download our free booklet and follow our social media platforms for tips and information throughout the year.
Please be reassured that most young children will cope well with a bereavement given caring support and understanding. However, if you are concerned that your child is feeling overwhelmed by their emotions, or that their grief reactions are extreme or persistent, please speak to your GP for advice and support.