Children’s Understanding of Death and its Impact on Behavior

Death of a 4 Year Old

Young children often have difficulty understanding abstract concepts like death. They may ask if the person who died will come back. They also often believe that their own thoughts or actions caused the death of the person. This is known as magical thinking.

Children with robust muscles and bones are less likely to be injured by tumbles. They tend to have regular bowel movements, which is a sign of healthy digestive tracts and immune systems.

Preschoolers

Children at this age have an active imagination and are obsessed with questions. They try to make sense of their surroundings and the people in them, including death. They are particularly influenced by their family’s beliefs and spirituality.

Kids at this age understand death as temporary and reversible. They may think that their negative thoughts or wishes caused the death of a loved one. They can also have a hard time distinguishing fantasy from reality, and they may see the deceased as a ghost or a boogeyman.

Young children at this age are prone to confusion, frightening dreams and night agitation. They often search intensely for the deceased despite assurances that they will not come back, and they can also experience regressive behaviors such as clinging, bed wetting or thumb sucking. They can also become anxious around strangers and withdrawn from social activities. In some cases, young children can even have thoughts of suicide. If these symptoms persist, parents should seek professional help.

Toddlers

Toddlers and young children often have a hard time understanding death. It is important for this age group to talk about the person who died and remember him or her in happy ways, such as by drawing pictures or writing stories.

Children of this age do not understand that life is permanent and may wonder whether the person who died will come back. They may also experience a variety of other reactions, such as clinging to their caregivers, being more active than usual or showing regressive behaviours like wetting the bed.

Parents of toddlers and young children who have lost a child may feel anger or irritability over the unfairness of death. This is a normal grief response and can be directed toward health care professionals, spouses or God. Some parents also become jealous of other families with living children and may struggle with a sense of worthlessness. This is a very difficult time for the whole family and additional support from professionals should be sought if needed.

Pre-schoolers

Children this age are curious about death but often avoid talking about it out of fear of saying the wrong thing or their own discomfort. They may visualize death as a tangible being, such as a ghost or a boogeyman. They may want to know what causes death and how it is processed, especially if they experience a miscarriage or have lost a sibling. They may also be fearful that death will happen to them or other family members.

Be prepared to answer their questions in short, clear and simple terms. Young children learn through repetition and a concrete understanding of what they hear is critical for them to make sense of their experiences. Avoid euphemisms such as, “resting in peace,” or “traveled to heaven.” These will only confuse them and generate fears about sleeping or going on long trips. Many times, children this age will regress to infant-like behaviors such as refusing food, staying in bed or acting more passive and sullen.

School-age children

As children move into this age group, their understanding of death becomes more sophisticated. Children begin to realize that they are going to die one day and may even fear their own deaths. They may begin to talk about it more openly, but they still do not fully understand what death is.

Children at this age are less likely to die from congenital anomalies than infants, but they still have relatively high rates of death (Table 2.2). They are more often killed by unintentional injuries and road traffic accidents.

In addition, some children are injured in school, and they may not always be given proper medical care. As a result, their health and well being can be affected for years to come. Kids this age tend to think of their lives as linear and progressing naturally, so the death of a loved one can be very traumatic. They can react with anger, denial, withdrawal and changes in eating and sleeping patterns.

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