Strategies for supporting children with grief

Published on Tuesday, 30 June 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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Early education teachers and Kaiako work hard to support children with every facet of their wellbeing and development. Helping children to understand and process grief is one of the many duties that can fall to early childhood and while this may seem like an overwhelming responsibility, there is a range of evidence based strategies which can make it easier.

First, it’s worth taking a closer look at what grief reactions looks like in infants and preschool aged children.  According to KidsHealth, how a child grieves when they lose someone they love can vary according to many factors including:

  • Age, gender, developmental stage and personality
  • The ways they usually react to stress and emotion
  • Their relationship with the person who dies
  • Previous experience with loss or death
  • Family circumstances
  • How others are grieving and
  • The sources of support available to them

According to KidsHealth babies and toddlers may not have an understanding of death or the language to explain their thoughts, however, they can experience feelings of loss and separation and are likely to pick up on the anxiety of the other people around them.

Common grief reactions among babies and toddlers are

  • Looking for the person who has died
  • Being irritable and crying more
  • Increased clinginess
  • Quietness, less responsive and less active
  • Weight loss
  • Jumpiness and more anxious
  • Fretting and distress

Teachers can support babies and toddlers with their grief by:

  • Keeping routines and normal activities going as much as possible
  • Holding and cuddling them more
  • Speaking calmly and gently to them and by being a calm and steady influence
  • Providing comfort items, such as a cuddly toy, special blanket etc

Preschoolers are at a different developmental stage and may struggle to understand that death is permanent and that the missing person isn’t coming back. However, like babies and toddlers they do experience feelings of separation and may feel frightened when things around them change. Children at this age need consistency and reassurance that they will be safe and looked after.

According to KidsHealth common grief reactions among preschool-aged children are:

  • Looking for the person who has died
  • Dreams, or sensing the presence of the person who has died
  • Fearfulness, anxiety
  • Clinginess and being fretful and distressed
  • Being irritable; having more tantrums
  • Withdrawing, being quiet, showing a lack of response
  • Changes in eating
  • Difficulty in sleeping
  • Toileting problems, bed wetting, soiling
  • Developmental regression; for example, returning to crawling, wanting a bottle

Early education teachers can help children by

  • Keeping routines and normal activities going as much as possible, try and treat the child the same as you always have.
  • Telling them you know they are sad – teaching and using words that describe feelings of sadness and grief
  • Telling them they are safe, and who is looking after them
  • Staying close or ensuring the child has a friend close by at all times to stave off feelings of loneliness
  • Comforting them with hugs, cuddles, holding their hand, and by encouraging them
  • Speaking calmly and gently to them – and by maintaining a calm demeanour
  • Explaining death as part of life, so they come to understand it bit by bit. Using some examples in nature may be helpful, such as watching plants grow, bloom and die or seasons change. Books and stories are also useful.
  • Providing comfort items, such as a cuddly toy, special blanket etc
  • Encouraging play – children can often use play to help them process what's happened; for example, sand play, puppets, dolls, writing, drawing, painting and various physical activities

Remember, many children experience grief in stages, and as their understanding about death and loss grows it is normal for them to experience delayed grief or to go through their mourning process all over again. No matter what the age or stage experts at the Child Mind Institute agree that there are certain guidelines that teachers should adhere to when caring for a grieving child:

  • Follow their lead. 

Giving children too much information can overwhelm them and it is better to let them ask questions and then answer in the best (and most developmentally appropriate) way you can. Don’t be surprised if young children are mostly concerned about themselves.

  • Encourage children to express their feelings. 

Don’t try to “protect” or “shelter” children by attempting to hide your own feelings. They will invariably know that something is wrong but may be left feeling alone and confused.

  • Don’t use euphemisms. 

Avoid phrases like “passed away,” “gone,” “we lost him.” Children tend to be very literal, and this kind of fuzzy language leaves them anxious, scared and often confused. Or conversely, it may lead them to believe the deceased will come back and that death is not permanent.

  • Maintain normal routines as much as possible. 

Grief takes time and children benefit from the security of regular routines and knowing that life goes on.

  • If appropriate memorialise the person who died. 

Remembering is part of grieving and part of healing, in an early childhood service this could be a simple as talking and sharing memories of the person and using their name. Again, it’s helpful to follow the child’s cues.  

References and further reading

KidsHealth Bereavement Reactions Of Children & Young People By Age Group

Child Mind Institute Helping Children Cope with Grief

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