Understanding children's mental health & emotional wellbeing

Grief and Bereavement

Experiencing the death of someone close can be traumatic for anyone and for children it can be especially so.

Grief is a normal reaction to death and loss and not all children will need counselling or therapy when they experience bereavement. How children grieve is determined partly by who they have lost and by their stage of cognitive and emotional development. Children in key stage one are particularly vulnerable as while they may have some understanding of what death means, they often do not possess the coping skills to deal with the situation adequately.

Parents/carers and teachers should always encourage the expression of feelings and be willing and available to offer ongoing support as the child comes to terms with the bereavement.

Typically, children will demonstrate the following stages of bereavement (although episodic lapses into a prior stages are not uncommon):

  • Shock and confusion
  • Denial
  • Anger and possibly guilt
  • Sadness
  • Meaninglessness

Signs of difficulties in adjustment may include:

  • Withdrawal
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Eating disorders
  • Hostile and aggressive behaviour
  • Denial
  • Bed wetting
  • Psychosomatic symptoms

It is important to be aware of the following processes of mourning:

  •  Experiencing the pain
  • Accepting the loss as real
  • Adjusting to a life without the loved one
  • Being able to remember the deceased whilst being able to live life.

Coming to terms with loss takes on average two years, which for a child or adolescent this is a significant length of time developmentally.

Other considerations:

  • Often family members make assumptions regarding what the child is capable of understanding, often avoiding talking about ‘it’ and exclude children from participating in ceremonies such as funerals
  • A child may try to protect a parent who is visibly upset, by covering up their own feelings, making it difficult for the child to come to terms with their loss
  • Children can experience immense grief at the loss of a pet particularly if the pet has been a source of companionship and comfort
  •  It is important to also be sensitive to significant dates such as anniversaries and birthdays, these may trigger emotional and behavioural responses in children