Children’s Grief 3-5 years

Developmental Stage 

Physical aspects
Becoming less dependent. Likes routine and order.

Emotional aspects
Can tolerate some separation from key caregiver.

Cognitive aspects
Beginning to understand and use two-way communication. “Why” questions.
“Magical thinking” (own thoughts, wishes, and actions determine what happens to others.)

Behavioral aspects
Beginning to know what is expected of them socially and learning appropriate ways of responding, particularly to parents.

Concept of Death 

Separation and sleep are related to early thoughts of death.

The child does not perceive death as irreversible, but rather under changed circumstances, i.e., another form of life.

Show concern about physical features of death and the dead, separation and abandonment, humanizing the unknown.

Common Reaction to Loss and Change

Feeding, toileting, and sleeping difficulties.
Concern about routines.

Fears about separation and abandonment.

Will want to know what has happened. May feel that they are being punished for “bad thoughts” – that what has happened is their fault. Interested in the death.

Regression to infant needs. Aggressive, rejecting behaviors, and/or withdrawn and/or clinging behaviors.


How Adults Can Help

Follow normal routines and activities.

Give as much comfort as needed and give reassurance that the children will be cared for. Enable children to
keep mementos.

Answer all questions as simply and honestly as possible. Reassure children that what has happened is not their fault, that they are “OK” and not bad. Allow children to see the body, attend the
funeral, etc.

Allow for regression. Be consistent and supportive regarding any changed behaviors. Inform school, family, friends, etc,
as appropriate.