Do children understand death

What do children and young people understand about death?

How much children understand about death will be different at different ages and stages of development. These are the most common understandings of death by children of different ages but remember that all children are special and unique and therefore, they will respond to and understand death in their own special and unique way.

Do young children under 5 understand death?

Children under the age of five will not understand the finality of death. Very young children often think that death is reversible and that a loved one can come back. That’s why it’s important to use clear and simple language like ‘dead’ and ‘died’.  At this age, children have a very literal understanding so, if we say “we’ve lost Granny”, children under five will think “where can we find her?”

Young children won’t understand the difference between dead and alive unless we show them – maybe you could go out into the garden, find some dead and alive bugs and compare them with your children.

It’s important to give clear and concise information, answer young children’s questions and make sure that they have understood what you say. It is not uncommon for young children to repeat the story of the death or ask lots of repetitive questions – this doesn’t mean they haven’t listened or that you haven’t explained it well enough, this is just how they work out what’s going on.

Do children aged 5-8 understand death?

Children who are aged 5-8 are starting to understand that death is something that is final, however, this can feel spooky or frightening. It might help to use books that explain death and the life cycle as a natural, normal thing – you’ll find our reading list here.

At this age, children are starting to think about themselves and how that fits with the death – what is called ‘magical thinking’. For example, they might think that it’s their fault that the person has died – “I didn’t eat my breakfast and therefore mummy has died”. It’s important to give them clear information about the death and to help them understand that it’s not their fault.

Children aged 5-8 will be beginning to think and feel strong emotions but they won’t have the vocabulary to understand theme or to explain them to us. You can help them to understand that the funny feeling in their tummy might be called ‘worry’, or that clenching of their fists and gritting of their teeth might be called ‘angry’.

Do children aged 9-12 understand death?

At this age, children understand the finality of death and that the person is not coming back. They are also more aware of the impact the death has on them, for example, that special person won’t be there for important birthdays or milestones like moving to secondary school.

By this age, children will have developed a vocabulary to understand their thoughts and feelings, however, they might not want to share them for fear of upsetting other people. Not sharing their feelings often leads to big emotional releases such as anger or distress. You can help them by giving them permission to talk about how they feel about the person who has died and to talk about their worries and concerns with you.

Children who are aged 9-12 are entering a time of transition and are likely to be moving to a new school. Transitioning from one school into another can be very difficult for some children who have experienced a bereavement. You can help them by listening to their worries and concerns and maybe by talking to the new school to let them know about the bereavement.

Do teenagers understand death?

Teenagers have an adult understanding of death and dying and are much more aware of the finality of death. They also understand what will mean for them and their lives, both now and in the long term.

At this age, young people are starting to question the meaning of life and the afterlife and the death of someone important can cause them to reflect more on this or consider ‘what’s the point?’

It’s important to give teenagers clear and honest information about the death and to answer their questions. Young people can look at things on the internet about the death and some of this may be unhelpful – you should be their source of truth and clarity.

Young people can end up looking after or caring for their parents or siblings after the death of somebody. They can worry about losing control of their emotions and need support to explore these. They might find it easier to talk to another trusted adult – help them find someone they can open up to.

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Publications and resources

Our specialist publications for adults supporting bereaved children.