Helping Your Elementary-Age Child Cope with Loss

Children ages six to ten will exhibit greater curiosity about death than during previous developmental stages. Some of their questions and words may seem frightening to you as a parent, because they lack the tact of an adult who understands the emotional intricacies associated with loss of a loved one.

Developmental Understanding

By this age, children typically understand that death is permanent, and is associated with bodily harm or decay. They are likely to be more interested in the actual biology associated with death, wanting to understand why or how someone dies, and they may be starting to develop an understanding of spiritual concepts associated with death if this is present with the family. Your child is likely to believe that his or her thoughts, words or actions caused the death, as egocentricity characterizes this developmental stage. Because the concepts of justice, right and wrong are becoming more prevalent, elementary-age children may view death as a punishment, and wonder what their loved one has done to deserve to die. He or she may think about who will care for them if their caregivers die.

Emotions and Behaviors

Many elementary-age children will experience a great deal of sadness and anxiety when they lose a loved one. They may feel lonely or become withdrawn, or express irritability or confusion. Feelings of fear are common, as he or she may be concerned about other loved ones dying, or even dying themselves. Guilt may be strong because of the belief that he or she did something to cause the death. Regressive behaviors are again common, as well as hiding feelings, acting out, a decline in school performance. Children are likely to have difficulty concentrating and experience trouble sleeping or nightmares. Your child may ask a lot of specific questions in order to better understand the concept of death, and they may come off as gruesome or insensitive because of limitations in social maturity common at this stage of development. Children are also typically very protective of surviving loved ones, and may seem clingy or display separation anxiety, especially when parting for extended periods of time, such as for school.

How to Provide Support

As always, maintaining the normal routine and offering physical affection are important in producing a sense of security and reassurance. Responding truthfully to your child’s questions is important, and your responses can include greater detail than during previous developmental stages (e.g. “Grandpa was very sick, and the doctors tried to help him with medicine, but he was too sick and it didn’t work, so he died.”). Provide the opportunity for your child to express him or herself through verbal, physical and creative outlets, such as telling a story, acting out a play, doing karate or drawing a picture or book. Work with your child’s teacher to tailor the workload appropriately if he or she is struggling to concentrate, and create a plan for a safe space to go to talk to an adult at school if feelings of grief become too strong to manage in class. Make sure to spend planned time together with your child, and validate his or her feelings and questions, regardless of the words used; you can reflect them back in a more tactful way as a form of role modeling. Give your child something special to take with him or her if separation anxiety is a concern, as a source of reassurance and a reminder of love, such as your necklace or scarf. Allow your child to choose how and when to be involved in the mourning process.



About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.