Children and young people can grieve just as deeply as adults, but they often show it in different ways. They learn how to grieve by copying the responses of the adults around them and rely on adults to provide them with what they need to support them in their grief.

Young children in particular have a limited ability to put feelings, thoughts and memories into words. They tend to 'act out' with behaviours rather than expressing themselves verbally. They will gradually gain the language of feelings by listening to words that you use. Showing your grief will also encourage them to express theirs.

A child’s behaviour is often your guide to how they might be feeling. This is as true for a very young child as it is for a teenager.

Children are naturally good at dipping in and out of their grief. They can be intensely sad one minute, then suddenly switch to playing happily the next. This apparent lack of sadness may lead adults to believe that children are unaffected. However, this ‘puddle-jumping’ in and out of grief behaviour is a type of inbuilt safety mechanism that stops them from being overwhelmed by powerful feelings.

As children get older, this instinctive ‘puddle-jumping’ becomes harder and teenagers may spend longer periods of time in one behaviour, such as being withdrawn or keeping very busy.

If your child’s behaviour is a cause for concern, impacts their safety or wellbeing or their ability to engage with normal life in the longer-term, you may wish to seek external support. If you are unsure or concerned, you can call Child Bereavement UK’s confidential Helpline for guidance.

Babies and toddlers

It is now well recognised that very young children, including babies, do experience grief, they just show it differently. When someone familiar dies, the overriding response in the under 5s is a sense of loss. Being too young to understand the cause, and lacking the vocabulary, they express their distress through their behaviour. Even a very young baby, with clearly no concept of what being dead means, will pick up on an emotionally-charged atmosphere and will probably have a reaction of some sort.

Whatever the circumstances, babies and children under five years of age need to have their grief acknowledged, and their distress comforted.


Babies have no understanding of the concept of death yet, long before they are able to talk, they are likely to react to upset and changes in their environment such as the absence of a significant person who responded to their needs for care and nourishment on a daily basis. They may also be impacted by any emotional changes in a bereaved parent or main carer.

When it is a parent or main carer who has died, this loss will be particularly felt through the inevitable changes such as an upset routine, a different carer, and unfamiliar surroundings with strange sounds and smells.


A baby’s sense of a change in atmosphere may lead to more clingy behaviour than usual. With no language to express themselves, their anxiety and insecurity may show as inconsolable crying. Feeding and sleeping routines may also be disrupted which may cause them to be unsettled.

From around the age of eight months, babies begin to develop a 'mental image' of the person who has died and have a sense of 'missing them'. Babies at this age may cry more or become more withdrawn; they may lose interest in toys or food and, as they develop motor skills and language, may call out for or search for the person who has died. You can help by giving lots of comfort and reassurance, and by keeping to normal routines as much as possible.

Age two to five years old


Young children are interested in the idea of death, for example in birds, insects and animals. They can begin to use the word 'dead' and develop an awareness that this is different to being alive. However, children of this age do not understand abstract concepts like 'forever' and cannot grasp that death is permanent.

Their limited understanding may lead to an apparent lack of reaction when told about a death, and they may ask many questions about where the person who has died is and when that person will come back. They may struggle with the concept of someone not being alive and may need reassurance that dead people feel nothing and therefore are not able to feel cold or pain.

Children at this age may expect the person to return. Young children tend to interpret what they are told in a literal and concrete way, therefore it is important to avoid offering explanations of death such as 'lost', 'gone away' or 'gone to sleep' that may cause misunderstandings and confusion. Provide honest answers to their questions but do not feel you have to tell them everything in detail or all at once. Information can be built on over time.

As a child’s understanding increases, so will their need for information, resulting in lots of questions. You may find you have to repeatedly answer the same questions, which is a sign that your child is trying to make sense of what has happened.


A young child is capable of taking in information from the adults around them and will be aware that something significant has happened. Under fives can, and often do, react strongly to their own grief, but also to the grief of significant adults involved in their day-to-day care.

Anxieties about everyday practicalities are common, as is increased separation anxiety, even when they are left for short periods with familiar adults.

Children may have disrupted sleep, altered appetite, or less interest in play. There may be regression in skills such as language or toilet training, or they might become anxious about the dark when going to bed.

Because children of this age find it hard to grasp the permanence of death, they may expect the person to return. When this does not happen there can be disappointment and sadness.

Primary school aged children


Between the ages of five and seven years, children gradually begin to develop an understanding that death is permanent and irreversible and that the person who has died will not return. Children who have been bereaved when they were younger will have to re-process what has happened as they develop awareness of the finality of death.


Children’s imagination and 'magical thinking' at this age can mean that some children may believe that their thoughts or actions caused the death, and they can feel guilty or may think they can make the person come back. Not being given sufficient information in age-appropriate language can lead them to make up and fill in any gaps in their knowledge.

Some children might feel that somehow what has happened was their fault. If this is the case, they might react by being especially good to make up for their sense of 'badness', or they might behave badly to attract the punishment that they feel they deserve.

Even when there is no expectation to do so, a child may take on the role of carer for a surviving adult or siblings. In an attempt to appear grown up they might take on inappropriate adult responsibilities.

Children increasingly become aware that death is an inevitable part of life that happens to all living things. As a result, they can become anxious about their own, and others’, health and safety.



Adolescence is a time of great change, and grief can impact on the developmental task of moving from dependence to independence. Young people are moving from primary reliance on their family to increased involvement with their peers. While they may strive to be independent and grown up, the death of someone close creates vulnerability but it can be difficult for a teenager to ask for support while trying to demonstrate independence. Young people do not like to feel different from their peers and being a bereaved young person can be extremely isolating. The support of peers with similar experiences can be extremely helpful in making them feel understood, heard and less alone.

Teenagers will have an adult understanding of the concept of death but often have their own beliefs and strongly held views and may challenge the beliefs and explanations offered by others.


Some young people may respond to a death by becoming more withdrawn, some may 'act out' their distress. Others might try to cope with the awareness of their own mortality through risk-taking or anti-social behaviour in an attempt to get back some control where life feels out of control for them. Some teenagers may take on adult responsibilities and become 'the carer' for those around them. Keeping to the usual boundaries of acceptable behaviour can be reassuring for bereaved young people and give them a sense of security when everything else might feel out of control. You may find it useful to watch our short animated film Volcano which aims to help children and young people cope with difficult feelings like sadness, anger, worry and guilt.  

Some young people become apathetic, and develop a 'what’s the point?' attitude to school or even life and they may withdraw into themselves, rejecting offers of help and being generally difficult to communicate with. On the other hand, a very hectic social life can be a distraction from thinking about grief, or a way of shutting out the pain. This can be useful at times, but the feelings of grief may re-emerge suddenly, which can be difficult to handle. Try to be patient and continue to let them know that you are there for them. However, try not to put them under pressure to talk if they don’t want to.

Young people who have been bereaved at an earlier age may need to re-process their grief as they think about and plan for their future and fully understand the impact of life without the person who has died.

It is important to remember that grief is a normal response to a death and with help and support, most children and young people will be changed, but not damaged, by what has happened. You may also find it helpful to look at our film, Should I be worried about my grieving teenager? You and your teenager may also find it helpful to look at our resources on support for bereaved young people.

Visit our page: How we can support you for more on our services.

You can also call our Helpline 0800 02 888 40, email [email protected], or use Live Chat on our website.