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The developmental stages of children and their responses to loss

Children experience loss differently at different ages because of developmental changes in their understanding as they grow up. These stages and the common responses associated with them can be broadly identified. It is important to remember that chronological age is not always the same as developmental age and that the age limits given are only guidelines.

Other influencing factors may be the historical background of the child’s family, the child’s current environment, their roles and responsibilities within the family, and the ways in which grief has been modelled for the child.

Babies and preschool children

From birth to six months old, a child is totally dependent on the caregiver figure, and death is synonymous with separation.
From six months to three years of age, a child knows that people exist when they are out of sight and can be called back or searched for. Searching for the missing person is a typical expression of grief in these young children.

Common responses for this age group include:

  • feeding, sleeping, and toileting difficulties
  • protest against separation
  • possibly regressing to an earlier stage of development.

Teachers and parents/caregivers can help by:

  • establishing clear routines
  • providing a consistent, comforting, and loving caregiver who responds to the child’s need for stimulation and distraction and who is sensitive to their fear of separation.

From three to five years old, children who experience various temporary separations learn that the parent will return. At this developmental stage, children display greater autonomy and independence and are more articulate. They commonly use what is called magical thinking, which means that they usually do not perceive death as irreversible but rather that the person is living under changed circumstances. For example, a child might believe that Grandad has died and gone to heaven but that maybe he’ll come back to see them next year.

Common responses for this age group include:

  • problems with feeding, sleeping, and toileting
  • wanting to know what has happened
  • possibly feeling as if the loss is somehow their fault
  • displaying aggressive, rejecting, and/or clinging behaviour or becoming withdrawn
  • grieving over the loss of a beloved toy as well as over more major losses, such as bereavement or family break-up.

Teachers and parents/caregivers can help by:

  • providing reassurance
  • establishing clear routines
  • being consistent.

It will help children if they can have mementos of the one who is gone.

Students aged five to ten years

Students at ages five to eight are developing socialisation skills. Conformity, especially to the peer group, becomes more important, and special friends are freely used
as confidants.

Students at ages eight to nine are working towards autonomy and responsibility. They seek causal explanations as answers to Why …? questions, and they often distance themselves from death, which they usually associate with old age and illness.

Many students at age ten are starting to move towards puberty. They display increasing awareness of peer group norms and increasingly need to feel that they can function socially within that group. They are beginning to develop secondary sexual characteristics and show growing interest in the sexual aspects of relationships. It is common for some students to be more physically developed than others at this age.

Common responses for this age group include:  

   Teachers and parents/caregivers can help by: 

  • concerns about pressure from friends

While friends are potentially a source of support and empathy for students, they can also be a source of pressure. Grieving students want to be the same as their friends, but they may find that not all of their friends share their experiences of grief.

  • reminding students that they can choose the people with whom they wish to share their feelings
  •  concerns about their own appearance

For those who mature early, self-consciousness and shame often merge.

  • ensuring that students’ strengths are identified
  • reassuring students about the support available
  • separation anxiety

The impact of the loss creates feelings of uncertainty and insecurity in students. They see the world as unpredictable and chaotic. As they are aware of the possibility of loss, the cling more tenaciously to secure, familiar things and people.

  • being aware of students’ emotional fragility 
  • providing consistency and routine in the school day
  • reassuring students that there are others who will support and protect them against what they may perceive as a dangerous world
  • maintaining connection with the home
  • providing students with the opportunity to contact home if needed
  • magical thinking

Students often believe that they have tremendous power and that they are responsible for the loss that has happened or for healing other family members of their grief.

  • listening to their fears and taking them seriously 
  • reassuring them that they are not responsible for healing the grief of others
  • explaining that they will always be cared for
  • helping them to identify someone who can comfort and support them
  • changes in social behaviours

Students in this age group have a greater sense of what is socially acceptable, so they may try to be brave, and they do not like to lose control. They may have rapid mood changes or become depressed.  Sometimes their social behaviour may go beyond acceptable bounds, resulting in the grieving student inflicting pain on themselves or on others.

  • acknowledging students’ feelings
  • calmly setting clear boundaries and limits to inappropriate behaviours
  • putting in place peer-support strategies
  • talking a lot

While greater ease with words gives students opportunities to talk over their problems, it also increases opportunities for misunderstandings.

  • listening to what students have to say
  • checking out what you think you have heard them say and correcting or confirming your impressions
  • feelings of helplessness

Sometimes loss can trigger feelings of helplessness. The student may feel unable to control events or to predict what will happen. These helpless feelings directly contradict their drive to be more independent and may lead them to present a particular face (or mask) to their peers, keeping their real feelings all to themselves. This can make grief a very lonely experience for students of this age.

  • giving students opportunities to express their feelings of helplessness and confusion
  • explaining to students that everyone needs to have someone to talk to
  • helping them to identify the people in their lives in whom they can safely confide 
  • difficulties with schoolwork

Grief may impact on academic achievement. Some students may increase their attention to schoolwork as a way to cope with grief, but others may find that meeting these demands can be difficult. Some may improve their achievement in expressive aspects, perhaps reflecting their need to find ways of expressing their overwhelming emotions. 

  • encouraging students to be patient with themselves
  • explaining to them, if necessary, that their mind is busy dealing with the problems of loss for a while and that ability and concentration in school subjects will come back in time 
  • displaying physical or emotional symptoms that raise serious concern

When symptoms such as eating difficulties or anxiety are ongoing and intense, it is important to take such symptoms seriously. 

  • reassuring students that help and support are available
  • encouraging parents or caregivers to seek professional help if you are concerned about a student.

Students during puberty and adolescence

The peer group, and the individual’s need to fit in with it, becomes increasingly important for students in this age group. Students’ secondary sexual characteristics (such as facial and body hair, breasts, deepening of the voice, and changes in height and weight) are developing and often cause physical and emotional upheaval. For the grieving adolescent, life can be a confusing conglomeration of changes on many levels.

The developmental changes that take place as a result of puberty are expected changes that should be seen in a positive light and as something to celebrate rather than something to mourn. Nevertheless, teachers should bear in mind that they are changes to be assimilated and, like all other changes, they bring both losses and gains. Also, because there are so many developmental changes to be dealt with, any additional losses or changes come on top of the expected changes. Some students find this difficult and do their best to ignore big losses or changes in their life at this age. Often they do not have the maturity and the emotional and social supports to do otherwise.

Grieving may also occur when relationships that a student wants to develop do not proceed as hoped or do not begin. Students need to learn about relationships, to practise interpersonal skills, and to have their feelings acknowledged.

Common responses for this age group age:

Teachers and parents/caregivers can help by:

  • feelings of uncertainty about their role in the family


-may begin to question whether their role is that of a child or an adult

-may feel the need to separate from their family emotionally and to develop independence (this need contrasts with the childlike and dependent feelings they often have when they are grieving)

-frequently clash with their parents/caregivers or other authority figures in establishing their own sense of identity

-fear losing emotional control and may feel the need for solitude

-explore existential issues and ask questions about the meaning of life. 

  • reassuring students that their confusions, needs, and frustrations are normal for people of this age
  • providing opportunities for students to talk about their grief feelings with a good listener
  • respecting their desire for solitude but ensuring that it does not isolate them from their family and other students
  • encouraging them to join a support group of other adolescents to discuss issues that concern them or directing them to appropriate reading materials 
  • feelings of guilt

 Adolescents may:

-feel guilty about arguments, secret hostilities, and residual resentments, particularly if they feel that these have contributed to what has happened

-return to the magical thinking of childhood by worrying that any rebellious behaviour in their past may have somehow contributed to what has happened. 

  •  “normalising” the student’s experience by talking about others who have felt this way and saying how natural it is or by suggesting some books so that the student can read around the idea
  • fluctuating between dependent and independent behaviour


-want to be adults but often feel like children and fear regression (adolescents sometimes feel as though they are being sucked back into the dependency of childhood and so may resist, deny, or repress their grieving)

-may feel resentful and angry if they are not included in such things as making funeral plans, running a new household, or deciding custody arrangements, yet, at the same time, they may long for the protection of childhood, where decisions were made for them.

  • displaying sensitivity by accepting and respecting their fluctuations between grieving childhood and independence
  • providing opportunities for outward grieving to take place
  • making it clear that they are aware of the difficulties that students may be experiencing and treating the students normally
  • involving adolescents in planning and decision making wherever possible (final decisions should be made by adults)
  • needing time

For many students, adolescence is a time of growth and apparently limitless future, and death seems impossible and unthinkable. An adolescent’s grief can involve intense longing, yearning, and pining. The student needs time to think about what has happened.

  • bearing in mind that, if absent-mindedness in class or meeting homework deadlines is a problem, the adolescent needs time to grieve through their loss – negotiate reasonable expectations and achievement of goals with students
  • changes in social behaviour

Adolescents may begin to display antisocial behaviour, for example, verbal hostility, physical violence, self-abuse, substance abuse, truancy, or unnecessary risk taking. These ways of expressing grief may be attempts to:

 – elicit care (to ask directly could suggest weakness)    

– punish themselves and others

 – release tension.


  • providing or suggesting more legitimate forms of aggression, such as through sport and physical exercise – role-playing or skill practice can also be helpful
  • expressing a need to be held

Students can be good at supporting one another, but emotionally vulnerable students may become involved in inappropriate or unwanted sexual relationships. 

  • respecting their friendships and supporting these where possible
  • grieving secretly  

Adults may not know about adolescents’ feelings of bereavement and grief or may trivalise them. Also, when someone influential in a student’s life dies or leaves, the student continues to experience that loss at different times as they grow up. So, if the mother of a six-year-old girl dies, that girl is likely to grieve the loss of her mother at milestones in her life, such as starting secondary school, even though the loss is well in the past. 

  • respecting the pain felt by an adolescent when a close relationship breaks up or when an idealised figure, such as a pop star, dies
  • acknowledging the student’s resurgence of  grief
  • if the student wants to discuss it with you, reassuring them that such feelings of loss are a normal part of grieving and pointing out that the feelings may continue to occur at significant times in their lives for a long time.