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Child Development and its Relationship to Grief and Loss

What can Parents Do To Help?

Birth - 3 years

General Concepts of Development

World is experienced through his/her senses
Attachment is developing – experiences some stranger anxiety
Language, motor, cognitive, social/emotional development is critical
Trust vs. Mistrust is developing

Concepts of Death

Has no concept of death
Sense that something has changed if main caregiver is no longer present
Able to sense a caregiver's emotional distress

Grief Issues

May respond to death with irritability, change in sleep, eating and play patterns
May regress
May search for caregiver
May be very attached to remaining caregiver and fear separation

What Can You Do to Help?

Provide nuturing, love and physical closeness (hold and snuggle child, coo and sing with them sitting on your lap)
Language holds a special appeal for children this age; they love to hear familiar voices repeating familiar words and phrases
Maintain a schedule/routine – Feeding times, play times, storytelling times, singing and holding should continue without interruption.
Take photos of deceased so that the child will be able to look at them at a later date if needed
Take child to a portion of funeral or service
Use appropriate vocabulary for age ("Mommy is dead, she is not coming back.")
Answer questions
Model/Encourage appropriate expression of feelings and memory sharing
Keep a journal for child of important events, ceremonies, newspaper clippings and stories

3 - 6 years

General Concepts of Development

Egocentric
Focuses on one thing at a time
Inanimate things can be alive
Magical Thinking – Child believes that just thinking about something can make it happen
Continues to learn about the world through senses
Play is critical to development
Time is reversible, may be able to recall some very memorable past events
Continues to develop trust

Concepts of Death


May have concept of death, depending upon the experience
Death may be caused by thoughts or feelings (Magical Thinking)
May be interested in physical and biological aspects of death and the dead body
May think death is like sleep
Senses caregiver's emotional distress

Grief Issues


May appear fine
May respond to death with irritability, change in sleep, eating and play patterns
May regress
May be concerned with who will be caregiver
May show feelings, thoughts through play because he may not have the vocabulary to explain self
May be very attached to remaining caregiver and fear separation
May ask questions repeatedly
Very curious
Physical reactions and acting out behaviors

What Can You Do to Help?


Answer questions
Maintain a schedule
Take photos of deceased so that child will be able to look at them at a later date if needed
Take child to a portion of the funeral/service
Use appropriate vocabulary for age
Provide play opportunities
Model/encourage appropriate expression of feelings and memory sharing
Keep a journal for child if important events, ceremonies, newspaper clippings and stories

7 - 12 years

General Concepts of Development

Egocentric
Beginning to understand cause and effect
Concrete-operational: understands concrete concepts
Magical Thinking – Believes that just thinking about something can make it happen (This is lessening)
Continues to learn about world through senses
Play is critical to development
Peer relationships are becoming very important
Self esteem is developing

Concepts of Death


Death is sometimes thought of as ghosts
Beginning to understand the finality of death
May be interested in physical and biological aspects of death
May feel that he caused death

Grief Issues

May appear fine
May respond to death with irritability, change in sleep, eating and play patterns
May regress
May be concerned with who will be the caregiver
May feel a stigma at school or around peers
May be very attached to remaining caregiver and fear separation
May be concerned about future of self and others
Very curious
Physical reactions and acting out behaviors

What Can You Do to Help?


Answer questions
Maintain a schedule
Take child to funeral or service if he chooses
Include child in funeral/service
Use appropriate vocabulary for age
Be honest and factual
Provide play opportunities
Model/encourage appropriate expression of feelings and memory sharing
Keep a journal for child of important events, ceremonies, newspaper clippings and stories
Keep in contact with school

Teen Years

General Concepts of Development

Formal operational: thinks abstractly, like an adult
Egocentric
Magical thinking – believes that just thinking about something can make it happen (this is minimal)
Attempting to find a balance in terms of independence and dependence of caregiver
Peer relationships are very important
Self esteem is developing
Searching for identity

Concepts of Death


Death is final, an end to physical life
Realization of own mortality and thinks about the meaning of life
May be interested in physical and biological aspects of death
May feel that he caused death
Understands future and what loss will mean

Grief Issues


May appear fine
May respond to death with irritability, change in sleep, eating, school and social behaviors
May be concerned with who will be caregiver
May feel stigma at school or around peers
May be attached to remaining caregiver/family
May be concerned about the future of self or others
May attempt to take on role of deceased
Struggles with needing support and not wanting it

What Can You Do to Help?


Answer questions
Maintain a schedule
Talk adolescent to funeral or service if he chooses
Include adolescent in funeral/service
Be available when teen wants to talk
Be honest and factual
Reduce expectations
Model/encourage appropriate expression of feelings and memory sharing
Keep a journal for adolescent of important events, ceremonies, newspaper clippings and stories
Keep in contact with school
Start a family communication journal

From Parents Trauma Resource Center:
http://www.tlcinst.org
Reference: Myers, D. (1986) Psychology, New York, Worth Publishers
"Developmental Responses to Separation/Loss" is now available on the website