Children and young people's emotional responses

Children and young people may react in a number of ways to the death of someone close. They may experience:

They are also likely to experience a range of physical responses.

Shock

For many young people and children shock is the first response when learning that someone close has died. The way in which shock is demonstrated by the newly bereaved child or young person again varies and may not be communicated in the same way as bereaved peers or siblings.

Some children or young people might laugh upon being told of the death. This response should not be viewed as disrespectful or inappropriate because it is a reflex reaction over which the child or young person has no conscious control. Laughter originating from shock is indicative that the child or young person’s brain is momentarily protecting them from the reality of the death.

It is not uncommon to hear a child or young person in this situation ask the person breaking the bad news to them if they are joking. On an intellectual level the child or young person knows that what is being told them is not a joke but on an emotional level the ability to process this fact is extremely difficult. The laughter will cease when the rational mind has processed that the person has died.

Some children and young people might immediately start tidying up, putting away toys, returning to homework, clearing away plates, etc. This action can appear quite robotic as if the child or young person has switched on to auto pilot. The commencing of mundane tasks such as tidying things away is indicative of the child or young person struggling to process the information and trying to “carry on as normal” in the hope that the news just given to them might not be true.

Shock, like grief, is an individual response and can manifest in many ways. Some children and young people might express a difficulty in verbally acknowledging what has just been said, others might start to sob uncontrollably, others might laugh and some might start putting things away and clearing up. Shock is a protective state, it allows the individual time to process bad news in the manner that best suits them and acts as a temporary buffer before reality sinks in.

Try not to be alarmed if the child or young person’s response seems inappropriate, shock, as mentioned manifests itself in different ways.

How Can I Help?

  • Try not to appear visibly alarmed if a child or young person’s response seems inappropriate to you. Remember shock can manifest in many different ways.
  • Reassure the child or young person that any feelings of numbness and disbelief that they are experiencing and the inability to accept that someone close has died is normal.
  • When explaining to a child or young person that someone has died try to keep your language clear and simple. Tell them the truth in a way that they can understand and is appropriate to their level of comprehension.
  • Reassure the child or young person that you are there for them and that you will listen to them and answer their questions.

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Denial

This is another response that you might observe in bereaved children and young people. Denial manifests so that the child or young person does not have to accept or believe that their loved one has died. Denial as a response to bereavement can be witnessed when a child or young person does not want to leave a certain place like home or a hospital ward for fear of leaving the person who has died behind.

A child might be heard saying that they don’t want to stay at nanny’s house in case mummy comes home. Other children and young people who have been bereaved might adopt certain behaviours such as obsessively tidying their room or furiously brushing their teeth to impress the deceased person when they return.

Searching can be another form which denial can take. For example some bereaved children and young people might actively search for the deceased person as part of their belief that the person is not really dead. Searching varies depending on the age of the child or young person who has been bereaved. Therefore a child might be seen looking under beds and emptying toy boxes to check if the deceased person isn’t hiding there. Older children and young people might search local areas or places of work where the deceased frequented in a similar desire to find the person alive and well.

Denial can also be demonstrated by bereaved children and young people who do not want to attend school (please see section, Information for Schools) or go to bed for fear of missing the person who has died returning.

Denial as a response to bereavement is useful to the child or young person as it gives them time to pursue quests to relocate the person who has died and puts off the inevitability of accepting that their loved one will not be coming back.

How can I help?

  • Acknowledge that bereaved children and young people will need time to process the death of someone close and that they may not appear to accept that the person has died.
  • Talk openly to the child or young person. Let them know that they can talk about what has happened and won’t get in trouble for asking questions relating to the death.
  • If your child or young person appears to be searching for the person who has died, gently explain to them, in language appropriate to their age and level of understanding that the person won’t be coming back.
  • Respect the child or young person’s denial is a protective mechanism and should dissolve in time.

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Anger

Anger as a response to bereavement is common amongst children and adults alike. However, unlike adults, bereaved children and young people, depending on their age and level of comprehension, can find it difficult to understand their emotions and articulate how they are feeling.

This inability to communicate their grief can prove highly frustrating to children and young people and this in turn can lead to anger. Children and young people can feel anger towards themselves for something they perceived that they did or did not do which they believe contributed to the death of their loved one.

They can also feel angry with people they feel did not do enough to prevent their loved one from dying. A child might be extremely angry towards the nurses who cared for his mother whilst she was dying believing that their care was inadequate or lacking in some way and that was why his mother died.

Quite common is the anger a child or young person feels towards the person who has died. This anger can be directed at the person who has died for not allowing the child or young person the time to say goodbye, it could be because the child or young person feels that they have been abandoned by the person dying. Anger can also be directed at the person who has died because their death has left the child or young person to deal with the strong emotions that grief entails by themselves.

Anger can manifest itself in various ways according to the child or young person’s understanding of death at the time of the bereavement. Younger children may have tantrums and become aggressive towards others; older children might become disruptive at school and get in to fights with other children.

A bereaved teenager might turn to alcohol or drugs in an attempt to placate the rage they feel or they might become involved in offending and become known to the police.

Anger is an understandable response to bereavement and it is something that the majority of children and young people will encounter as they grieve.

How can I help?

  • If a child or young person’s anger is causing them to hurt themselves or others explain to them that it is OK to feel angry but not OK to hurt themselves or other people.
  • Encourage the child or young person to vent their anger towards a pillow or to go for a run. Anything that will allow the child or young person to channel their anger in a safe way can be used.
  • Reassure the child or young person that it is OK to feel anger towards the person who has died and that this is a natural response and not something they should feel guilty about.
  • If the child or young person’s anger is directed towards you, try not to take it personally. Often children and young people will direct their anger at the person they feel closest too. By remaining constant and not getting upset by the child or young person’s anger you are reinforcing the fact that you will be there for them no matter what.

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Bargaining

This particular response to bereavement is not peculiar to children and young people, bereaved adults too often plead for the return of their deceased loved one in exchange for a promise to act a certain way, abstain from certain behaviours, etc.

As the nature of grief is individual not all children and young people will experience the act of bargaining as a response to bereavement. Those children and young people that do will often beseech a deity or something that the child or young person sees as having the power to restore their loved one back to life.

Like some of their adult counterparts, the grieving child or young person will plead for the deity / higher power to give life to the deceased person in exchange for a pledge or behaviour that the child or young person believes will please them. For example, a child might be heard to bargain with God, “Please God, if you bring my sister back I promise I’ll be good for mummy and daddy”.

Bargaining is the child or young person’s desire to turn back the clock to the time when the deceased person was still alive. Bargaining can serve as a tool for distraction, distracting the young person or child from the pain of reality. The nature of bargaining can alter over time for instance the bereaved child or young person may begin by bargaining for the return of their loved one and then later this plea changes and the child bargains their life for the return of the person who has died to take their place.

Bargaining can offer the child or young person temporary respite from the pain of grieving.

How can I help?

  • Gently explain to the child or young person that there is nothing that anyone can say or do that will bring the person who has died back.
  • Provide the child or young person with the reassurance that they do not need to try and be perfect in order to bring the person who has died back.
  • Understand that in spite of your reassurance some children and young people will continue to bargain as it can help them feel that they are being proactive in trying to bring the person who has died back.
  • Remember that bargaining behaviour should disappear as the child or young person moves towards accepting the finality of death.

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Guilt

Guilt can be seen as anger turned inwards towards the self. Bereaved children and young people are particularly vulnerable to feeling guilty for death of someone close. Children and young people can become convinced that the death was their fault due to something they did or said or something they did not do.

Feelings of guilt in response to bereavement can be heightened if the child or young person felt some sort of momentary animosity towards the deceased person whilst they were alive. Guilt can also follow instances where the child or young person has felt momentary relief during their grieving. If a child or young person is allowed to stay up and watch television for an hour more than they would have been when the deceased person was alive they can feel guilty for enjoying this lapse in rules. Children and young people can also feel guilty if they forget to think of the deceased person even for as little as five minutes.

It is vital that bereaved children and young people are reassured that they are in no way guilty of the death and that nothing they said / did not say, did / didn’t do would have prevented the death from occurring. Younger children can sometimes feel guilty that someone close to them died because they misbehaved on the way home from school or because they lied to a teacher. Never underestimate a bereaved child or young person’s perception of how they might feel responsible through personal inaction or cross words, for the death of their loved one.

When reassuring a grieving child or young person that they are not to blame remember to explain why and how they are not responsible. If the child or young person showers you with their reasons as to why they feel responsible, listen patiently and answer truthfully each question providing age appropriate examples of how they had no part in the death.

How can I help?

  • Reassure the child or young person that they are not to blame for the death of someone close.
  • Explore with your bereaved child or young person how and why they feel they are responsible for the death. In turn, explain how and why they are not responsible.
  • Remember that not all bereaved children and young people who are experiencing guilt relating to the death of someone close will tell you that they are. However, increased anxiety and worry can often be indicative of guilt so try to be watchful for this. If the child or young person hasn’t mentioned that they feel guilty for the death, when you are talking with them remember to include reassurance that the death is not their fault for any reason.
  • Encourage the child or young person to talk about how they are feeling and what they are thinking as and when they feel they need to.

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Depression

Bereaved children and young people irrespective of their age or cognitive understanding will experience some sort of depression as they grieve.

When the bargaining has failed and the anger has proved fruitless, when the reality that the person who has died is never coming back is understood, the bereaved child or young person will probably experience depressive episodes.

This depression can manifest itself physically whereby the bereaved child or young person does not feel like eating, is lethargic and does not have any interest in previous hobbies or sports. Children and young people may complain of feeling “heavy” or feeling weak.

The grieving process although individual and unique to the mourner, is always arduous and painful. Bereaved children and young people might exhibit behaviour or make remarks that indicate they are confused or becoming absent minded. This is natural. The child or young person’s mind will have been so consumed by questions, guilt, fear, anxiety, etc, following the death of a loved one that they are bound to be confused.

Anxiety originating in bereaved children and young people from the loss of someone they love can permeate in to fears of someone else close to them dying or that they too might die. Anxiety can also cause some bereaved children and young people to fear that they might forget what the deceased person looked like, how they spoke and the like. Constant fretting and unresolved anxiety can lead to depressive episodes in children and young people.

Therefore it is important to allow the child or young person to discuss their worries and to not try and make them “snap out of it”. They can’t. Allow them the time to express their sadness whilst ensuring that they are able to communicate their feelings as and when they need to.

How can I help?

  • Ensure that your bereaved child or young person knows that their feelings are important. Depression can knock a person’s self esteem and feelings of worth so help your young person or child to feel valued and cared for. 
  • Recognise that depression experienced as a response to someone dying is not the same as clinical depression and therefore depressive episodes and symptoms amongst bereaved children and young people are to be expected.
  • Encourage your child or young person to participate in hobbies, sports and existing friendships if they feel ready to.
  • If you become concerned about your child or young person’s welfare following the death of someone close seek the support of Cruse Bereavement Care or your GP. 

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Acceptance

Gradually as the reality that the death of someone close is irreversible settles in the mind of the bereaved child or young person the move towards acceptance becomes apparent.

Try to avoid viewing the child or young person’s acceptance of the death as a sign that they are “back to normal”. The term “acceptance” in this case means that the bereaved child or young person has now become aware that the person who has died is never coming back and that life will never be the same again.

Children and young people who have been bereaved will need time to reach acceptance and the length of time needed is dependant on the individual child or young person. To enable the child or young person’s move towards acceptance the maintaining of routines and “normal life” is crucial.

Bereaved children and young people will cope better if their normal routines and daily structure are kept the same. If too many alterations to this routine are made, the child or young person could become confused or anxious as semblances of their daily lives are interrupted.

Remember, the bereavement that the child or young person has experienced will have already dramatically changed their lives and unsettled feelings of emotional security therefore any other changes are likely to heighten their sense of emotional unrest.

How can I help?

  • Help the bereaved child or young person to understand that it is OK to laugh, smile and become interested in life again and that this is in no way disrespectful to the person who has died.
  • Reassure the bereaved child or young person that not thinking about the person who has died all the time is OK too.
  • Help your child or young person to realise that although their lives will never be the same again that this doesn’t mean they won’t have a happy life or exciting future ahead of them.
  • Participate in activities designed to remember the person who has died with your bereaved child or young person if they ask you to.

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