These are common reactions that children may have when they experience loss. Not all children will have them nor will any child have all of them. If reactions persist or you feel they are getting in the way of a child’s functioning, you may wish to consult with Barr-Harris or other professionals about your concerns.

Developmental Aspects of Child Bereavement

Infants & Toddlers

  • Infants notice changes in parents’ energy level and emotional state.
  • Older infants and toddlers notice when one parent is no longer present in the home.
  • More irritability, such as crying and fussing.
  • Changes in sleeping, napping, and other daily routines.
  • Older infants may be nervous and fearful if a new adult moves into the home.
  • May have difficulty separating from caretakers.
  • May express anger toward caretakers.
  • Regression (this can occur at all developmental stages).
  • Older toddlers may have nightmares.

Children 5 and Under

  • Recognize that one parent is no longer present at home.
  • Awareness that something has happened which feels scary, unsettling, and threatening.
  • May be aggressive and angry toward the parent they “blame.”
  • Undeveloped or inadequate defense system to assist them in coping with the disruption in the family.
  • Death or separation viewed as temporary.
  • May engage in magical thinking.
  • Reunion fantasies (these suicidal fantasies may exist at any age).
  • Regression and separation anxiety.
  • Passivity in working through the loss.
  • Fearful of succumbing to same fate or illness as deceased.

Children 5-11

  • Increased understanding about death.
  • May engage in greater self-blame for the loss.
  • Loss understood through concrete thought process.
  • Psychosomatic symptoms.
  • May have increased nightmares.
  • Heightened level of school phobias.
  • More active, superhero efforts to work through the loss.
  • Anger and sadness for what has happened.
  • Shifts between talking about the loss and playing as if nothing happened.
  • May avoid talking about the loss.

Preteen & Adolescents

  • Developmental process of separation from parents is accelerated.
  • Full understanding of death.
  • May express more anger and aggression.
  • May engage in “social causes” in mourning process.
  • May take on care-taking role of younger siblings.
  • May become sexually active prematurely.
  • May seek a more exclusive relationship at an earlier age or may have difficulties forming an intimate relationship.

How Do Losses Differ?

Below are some potential reactions. Many of these reactions are temporary, but if they persist a professional should be consulted. Every child is different and so their ability to deal with the loss is variable. Many children go through this experience and develop strength and coping mechanisms that serve them well through the rest of their lives.

Parental Separation and Divorce

Children of divorce often experience long periods of distress due to parental discord. Parents may be engaged in contentious custody disputes, which may place the children squarely in the middle of parental conflicts. Children may be subjected to sensitive, sophisticated confidences from one or both parents. Children may feel abandoned by both parents due to the parents’ preoccupation with the divorce process.

  • Subjective psychological distress.
  • May assume blame for causing the separation/divorce.
  • Significant anger and despair.
  • Possible suicidal ideation (the suicidal feelings may represent a wish to be free of psychic distress or may be an unconscious attempt to bring the parents together via a crisis).
  • Decline in academic performance and interest, and difficulty in performing educational demands.
  • Increase in aggressive behavior toward parents and/or siblings and sometimes friends.
  • Child may feel abandoned by the parent who moves out of the house.
  • Some siblings may turn to one another for nurturance and support.
  • Some siblings may argue more and become emotionally distant.
  • Children may feel lonely, ashamed, and terrified that they will be abandoned and starve.
  • Children may be preoccupied with the loss of the intact family and engage in significant reunification fantasies.
  • Children may be highly affected with long-term issues such as alcoholism and substance abuse or fear of marriage and intimacy./li>

Foster Placement or Abandonment

When the loss is due to foster placement or abandonment by the parent, not only does the child need to cope with the pain of the loss, but they may also be subjected to angry or disparaging statements about the abandoning parent.

  • Child may remain preoccupied with reunification fantasies over extended periods of time and unable to bond with new caretakers.
  • There may be a lack of support for the child’s feelings about the parent and the child may feel the need to suppress those feelings.
  • Child may feel the need to defend the absent parent.
  • Child may be accused of being like the disparaged parent, inducing feelings of shame and rejection.
  • Child may be told that his/her presence is a burden to the caretaker, financially, emotionally, or socially.
  • Child may experience a significant drop in social or economic status.
  • Litigation or other legal situations may increase the stress in the household, undermine the authority of the caretaker, and also create loyalty crises for the child.
  • Children are likely to keep their status a secret from schoolmates, increasing a sense of isolation.

Violent and Traumatic Loss

The violent death of a family member or close friend creates a haunting image in the child’s mind which may persist throughout the lifetime. Visually witnessing the death of someone creates an intense perceptual experience involving all the senses and has significant effects on the child’s cognition, memory, school performance and learning, and emotional well-being. These effects may remain present throughout the life cycle.

  • PTSD symptoms: denial, avoidance, and psychic numbing may alternate with heightened emotional distress, somatic distress, intrusive imagery, and nightmares and flashbacks.
  • Children may experience significant initial and continuing regressive episodes.
  • Children may lose a previously held sense of safety in their world.
  • Children may lose a sense of their own power and efficacy.
  • Children’s play may be adversely affected.
  • Children’s trust in human relationships may be shattered.
  • Children may experience fragmentation of self and of the images of the traumatic event.
  • Children’s attachments to others may be disrupted as well as their ability to form subsequent attachments.
  • Traumatic experiences interfere with a child’s ability to form adaptive narratives.

Children in Military Families

Parental deployment often increases children’s anxiety.

  • Children may feel abandoned.
  • Children may fear for their parent’s safety.
  • Children may fear for death of parent in combat.
  • Children may fear parent returning home wounded or changed.
  • Children may ear that parent will not remember them.
  • Children may not feel safe in their own home.