Recognising changes in behaviour | Cruse Bereavement Care

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Grief is individual and the processes of mourning are never the same between two people. However some of the responses to death and bereavement can be similar depending on the age, level of comprehension, relationship with the person who has died and the emotional resilience of the mourner. For a comprehensive overview of some common responses to death experienced by many bereaved children and young people see our Children and Young People section.

The following responses are common:


Alternating play and sadness

Members of the school staff may be the first to recognise changes in the bereaved child or young person’s behaviour outside of their immediate family, who may not have noticed if they too are grieving. Young children may appear to be sad and withdrawn one minute then might begin playing with building blocks or dolls the next. This is because unlike adults, bereaved children do not possess the emotional reserves to grieve continuously and they will need respite from their grief. Play allows the bereaved child to shift their focus from their grief, albeit for a short while, until they are sufficiently mentally restored to recommence grieving. It is of paramount importance not to view such play breaks as the child “getting over the death” because this is not only inaccurate but can lead to the child being chastised or criticised for attention seeking when they resume grieving. Play breaks are just that – momentary breaks from perpetual grief which the bereaved child does not have the capacity to sustain.



Grieving is an exhausting process for adults and young people alike, therefore school staff may become aware of how tired and listless the bereaved child or young person appears. Bereavement can dramatically affect the sleeping patterns of a child or young person and if they are experiencing nightmares or engaging in hyper vigilance (seeChildren and Young People for information on sleeping disorders and hyper vigilance), then they will most likely present as being lethargic and lacking energy. Exhaustion will also have a direct effect on the bereaved child or young person’s ability to concentrate on their work and it is not uncommon to find a bereaved child or young person falling asleep during lessons.


Mood swings

A bereaved child or young person will probably display mood swings and may display behaviours that appear polar to the behaviours of the child / young person prior to their bereavement. For example, a previously gregarious and popular pupil might become sullen and withdrawn following the death of someone close. A normally confident, academic achiever can become anxious and despondent as they grieve. It can be alarming for a member of the school staff to observe a bereaved pupil develop a stutter or similar speech impairment; it can prove equally worrying to observe a pupil revert to using baby talk or sucking their thumb.


Regression and loss of skills

The loss that the bereaved pupil has suffered has thrown them in to a place populated by doubt, fear and insecurity. The regression towards behaviours exhibited in their formative years enables the pupil to try and emanate a time prior to the death when they felt safer and their world was intact.

School staff may also notice a bereaved child or young person’s academic skills deteriorate; their spelling may become poor or they might not be able to understand certain mathematical equations that they were adept at prior to the bereavement.

As the bereaved child or young person moves towards acceptance of the death such behaviour should disappear.


Anger and frustration

School staff may become aware that a bereaved young person presents as being angry, frustrated and aggressive. Such challenging behaviour may be observed in older pupils who have been bereaved, particularly as they progress through puberty. The maelstrom of emotions experienced by many young people as they enter adulthood can be difficult enough and the death of someone close can serve to heighten and potentially complicate these feelings further. A good natured and amiable pupil may become aggressive following the death of someone close and their frustration can become apparent.

If a bereaved young person, or child, is displaying physically or verbally threatening behaviour it is important that appropriate boundaries are put in place and universally adhered to by all members of the school staff. Allowances for the bereaved child or young person’s grief should not extend to aggression and violence being left unchallenged. It is worthwhile for a school staff member who knows the bereaved pupil well to speak with the latter should such behaviour manifest. The staff member will need to reassure the bereaved pupil that anger and frustration are acceptable responses to grief but will equally need to reinforce that harming others either verbally or physically is not acceptable. This can be a difficult situation for a member of staff to find themselves in as they may feel that by challenging the bereaved pupil they might make their grief worse or “send them over the edge”.

Be assured that nothing you say can make the bereavement experienced by the young person worse. By challenging the aggressive behaviour of a bereaved student you are actually showing that you care about their well being. The reinforcement of school rules on such occasions promotes the familiarity and certainty of normal school life.


High-risk behaviours

In some circumstances a bereaved young person may demonstrate high risk behaviours in response to their grief. Such types of high risk behaviours can include excessive alcohol consumption, substance misuse and self harm. Some bereaved young people may use such vehicles as coping mechanisms endeavouring to anaesthetise the emotional pain they are experiencing. If you are concerned that a bereaved pupil is using any of the aforementioned as a coping mechanism this should be addressed swiftly.


Lack of response

It is not uncommon for some newly bereaved children and young people to not present any behaviours associated with grieving, or to deny their grief altogether. This is most often witnessed when the bereaved child or young person appears to act and behave as if the death has not occurred. School staff might observe the bereaved child or young person exhibiting compensatory behaviours such as all consuming academic pursuits or an overly keen engagement in sporting activities. This is not because the bereaved child or young person does not intellectually comprehend the death of their loved one but rather that they are trying to throw themselves in to tasks that will serve to facilitate their denial of the death. Denial in such instances can serve as a protective mechanism allowing the bereaved child or young person time to process the death and its consequences.

Therefore, it is not uncommon for some bereaved children and young people to delay their grief for months or sometimes years. Other life changing incidents such as moving home, acquiring a step parent or experiencing a further bereavement can serve to release the bereaved child or young person’s delayed or unresolved grief. Unfortunately there is no way to divert grief and ultimately, regardless of how long the child or young person has managed to deny their grief, they will have to go through the grieving process eventually.


How Can I Help?

  • Try not to be alarmed if the bereaved child or young person is displaying regressive behaviours – these should disappear over time
  • Be aware that sometimes regressive behaviours displayed by the bereaved child or young person may be noticed by other students and they might tease the child or young person because of this
  • If the bereaved pupil appears to be throwing themselves in to their studies take some time to talk with them and reassure them that grieving is normal and that they will need time to grieve
  • Liaise with the bereaved child or young person’s family if you have concerns that the student’s grief is delayed or that they are denying their grief altogether. Explain this to the family
  • Help the bereaved chid or young person to understand that they won’t always feel different or act differently to how they were pre bereavement. Although their lives have been changed forever their grief will lessen over time


Further help

Many of our Areas offer support to children and young people. Find your local Cruse service and contact them to see what is offered in your area.

Our website Hope Again is a website designed for young people by young people. It includes information and message boards where young people can share their experiences.