Do Very Young Children Feel Grief?

There is a commonly held belief that young children are “too young to grieve” when a loved one dies. However, we now know that preschool-age children, toddlers and even infants all experience grief.

Following is a brief guide to understanding and supporting young children through a grief experience.

Grief in Infants and Toddlers

Babies are affected by changes in household routines. If the person who died was a parent or caregiver, an infant will feel the absence of that familiar person’s voice and touch. Toddlers are likely to resist being apart from family and may develop new “babyish” behaviors or become unusually clingy. Grief in both babies and toddlers can sometimes seem like irritability or anxiety, or they may seem quieter than usual.

Preschoolers and Grief Emotions

 Preschool children are likely to express grief through behavior changes rather than words. They may demonstrate separation anxiety, a need for comfort and reassurance or regression of previously mastered skills such as potty training.

Preschoolers may seem completely unaffected at times, while at other times they may exhibit intense emotion through tantrums or outbursts. Their behavior may seem out of proportion to the immediate circumstances. Some preschoolers and young school-age children may seem worried and ask questions, such as who will take care of them.

How to Support a Young Child After a Loss

Young children tend to experience grief in bursts. It is helpful to expect that a young child’s grief responses may be unpredictable, but also short-lived. The most effective response by caregivers can be simply to maintain the child’s physical safety if needed, offer comforting touch and let the child know it’s okay to have big feelings.

As much as possible, families should try to maintain the structure and routines of the household. Give your child opportunities to express emotions through play, art or physical activities. Some families may choose to read and discuss a picture book about maintaining connection with loved ones after loss, such as “The Invisible String.”

Children’s Grief Counseling at Kids Path

Children as young as 4 years old may be eligible for individual grief counseling at Kids Path. For a no-cost phone consultation about how your young child is coping with death or illness, please call 336.544.5437 and ask to speak with any Kids Path counselor.