Preschool aged children often struggle with understanding that death is permanent. This can be hard on their parents/guardians, as it can require their parent/guardian to repeatedly tell them about the death. Even after hearing the person has died, preschoolers often spend time looking for him/her.
Regardless of their understanding about the permanence of death, the child can understand the feeling of missing their loved one. Children at this age may feel insecure and frightened when things change around them, such as people, routine and location.
Preschool children also do not always have the language ability to express how they are feeling or what they are thinking. There are common reactions that adults in their lives can look for and there are ways for adults to help them.
Children at this age find it hard to understand that death is permanent. They are also at a stage of magical thinking. For example, thinking someone will come alive again or thinking somehow they made someone die. They understand separation though, and feel insecure and frightened when the familiar things around them change. This age group needs a lot of reassurance that they will be safe and looked after.
Common reactions may include:
- Looking for the person who has died
- Dreams, or sensing the presence of the person who has died
- Fearfulness, anxiety
- Being fretful, distressed
- Being irritable; having more tantrums
- Withdrawing, being quiet, showing a lack of response
- Changes in eating
- Difficulty in sleeping
- Toileting problems, bed wetting, soiling
- Regressing in progress (e.g. returning to crawling, wanting a bottle, etc.)
How to help them:
- Keep routines and normal activities going as much as possible
- Provide consistent and normal rules and expectations
- Tell them you know they are sad—start to teach and use words that describe feelings
- Tell them they are safe, and who is looking after them
- Keep separated from them as little as possible
- Comfort them with hugs, cuddles, holding their hand, and by encouraging them
- Speak calmly and gently to them—and be calm around them
- Explain death as a part of life, so they come to understand it bit by bit. Using some examples in nature may be helpful, such as watching plants grow, bloom and die or seasons change
- Provide comfort items, such as a cuddly toy, special blanket, etc.
- Encourage play—children can often use play to help them process what’s happened; for example, sand play, puppets, dolls, writing, drawing and painting
- Encourage physical activity—burning energy can help children feel calmer and more in control