How bereavement can affect your child’s behaviour
When you and your children are trying to come to terms with the death of someone important, it is hard to know how to deal with difficult behaviour. Often, as a parent, you are at your lowest ebb yourself, so that makes it doubly – or perhaps trebly – difficult to pick a useful way through.
What is normal?
It is normal for children to be extra good and extra difficult in the days, weeks and months after the death of someone who was important to them. Children may go quiet and withdrawn, or they may really turn up the volume, literally as well as in troublesome behaviour. They may be able to be kind to you or they may seem furious all the time, behaving as though it is your fault. They may cling to you or they may ignore you, or, most commonly, a mixture of the two.
· Remembering that children grieve too
Remember that your children are also experiencing the turmoil, pain and confusion that happens when someone important dies. Unlike adults who cannot escape from this for a second, children do ‘puddle jump’. They are able to turn off and feel quite OK but then they will suddenly be overwhelmed by what has happened, they will jump back into a puddle. Then, they will jump out of it again and go off and play – until they encounter the next puddle.
· Keeping a balance
Try to keep a balance between having things pretty much as they were before – if you never let the children do x or y, don’t let them do it now (unless there is a good reason of course!) If, for example, they always had a regular bed time, you may have to give them extra cuddles and reassurance around bed time but don’t think you have to drop all your old rules and customs and at the same time, understand that they are struggling to manage all sorts of complicated feelings and worries, so they may get distracted, short tempered, angry, aggressive. You won’t want to let them hurt themselves or anyone else, so you will want to try to contain that behaviour while showing them that you understand why it is happening.
· Keep explaining
Make sure that they understand as fully as they can what happened and what is going to happen. When children worry it often comes out in difficult behaviour. Children and young people overhear adults and put 2 and 2 together to make 17. Check that they have the facts, not their worst imaginings. And keep checking that they understand what has happened and what is happening now.
· Involving them
Involve the children as much as you can in as much as you can. One of the worst feelings is of being left out or even shut out. Helping children to anticipate what will happen, preparing them for difficult or possibly upsetting events means that they may be able to be part of them. Sharing in what happens helps.
· Keep talking
Talk about the person who died. This can be hard, particularly as time goes on, but keep mentioning them in an everyday way. Also keep telling the children the family stories about the person, so that they go on having a real picture, a real sense of the person they are missing. The person who died may not always have been a hero – or the ‘bad guy’ - so remember both sorts of anecdotes.
Younger children 0-5
- Children up to 5 or 6 don’t know the name for what they are feeling. They just know that the world feels all different and horrible and their tummy feels funny and somehow it comes out as a tantrum in the supermarket.
- They may be more clingy than usual, or more scared (of real things or pretend ones like giants and monsters).
- They may behave as though they are younger than they actually are; young children often seem to lose skills that they have mastered so they may go back to wetting themselves or waking often in the night.
- They may ‘act out’ the story of what happened to the person who died. They may have tummy aches or headaches or their toys may.
- Remember that a lot of the time they will behave as though nothing has happened. This is normal. They will remember too, but not all the time.
What can help:
- Tell them what they are feeling, comfort them, help them to feel safe while making sure they know that having a tantrum, thumping their little brother or refusing to stay in bed is not OK.
- Help them to know that it is alright to feel sad, frightened, lonely – and that sometimes you feel that way too.
- Keep routines going, like bedtimes.
- Don’t be afraid to say no if that is what you would always have said in the past. You can add extra cuddles and reassurance, and be a bit flexible where you – or your child – needs you to be.
- Make sure they understand what has happened. Use words that others are using (like dead) even if you think they are too young to understand them; they will hear them anyway and it will be reassuring to hear you say them.
- Talk about the person who has died, tell them stories about the person, and remind them what the person was like.
Older children 6-11
- 6-11s may know what the feeling is called but they may not connect it with the death of someone important.
- They are looking for reassurance, comfort and a sense that the adults are still in charge as well as an acceptance that they too are suffering and struggling.
- Children of this age often try to comfort their parent; they may hide their own distress or act it out at school. They may be unusually good or unusually ‘naughty’. They may be uncharacteristically clingy or behave as though they are younger than they really are.
What can help:
- As with younger children, don’t be afraid to say no if that is what you would always have said in the past. You can add extra cuddles and reassurance, and be a bit flexible where you – or your child – needs you to be.
- Drawing and making things together is a great way to talk about difficult things.
- Remember that at this age, like the younger ones, a lot of the time they will behave as though nothing has happened. This is normal. They will remember too, but not all the time.
- Make sure they understand what has happened. Remember that their understanding will mature as they grow older so you will need to go over what happened as time passes. They will be able to understand more and make better sense of events.
- Talk about the person who has died; share stories about him or her, encourage children of this age to make cards, draw pictures to express their feelings and their memories
- Life is full of very complicated feelings if you are a teenager and trying to deal with a bereavement just adds to the complications.
- The main thing to remember is that 12-18s tend to be very unpredictable – one minute they are looking after you very nicely and the next they are slamming out of the house in a temper. They may seem to be inconsolable until their phone goes and they seem to be able to chat happily to a friend.
- Friends and the outside world are very important. You may feel they are given priority over your needs – it helps to try to make space for both. Teenagers can be wonderfully supportive of each other.
- Teenagers often take things very personally so it may feel deeply unfair that this thing has happened to them. Feeling hard done by can make people cross and aggressive. Acknowledging that it is not fair, that it is hard, will help.
- Teenagers may want to talk to you all the time – often in the middle of your night – or they may hardly acknowledge your presence. Try to talk when they are open to it – it will be appreciated. And try not to put pressure on them to confide in you – they may be more comfortable talking to others. But, do keep checking that they are OK.
- Sometimes talking is just too complicated and painful – you can keep communicating by leaving them a little note (like a post it on the fridge or their bedroom door), sending text messages, e-mail. Don’t be put off by not getting a response – your effort will be being appreciated, deep down.
- Teenagers are notorious for their risk taking behaviour – experimenting with drink, drugs, sex, and unacceptable behaviour. When they are trying to cope with a death in the family this may become more pronounced. As with younger children – try and keep to the old expectations while making some allowances
What can help:
- Keeping the channels of communication open, whether directly or via text, notes or phone calls.
- Make sure your teenager knows what is going on; this may mean telling them more than once!
- Try to acknowledge their feelings and experience while recognising that some will be like yours and some will be different.
- Ask them for help when you need it without burdening them too much; sometimes teenagers feel that no one takes any notice of them and their nearly adult abilities.
- Try not to feel hurt if they choose to spend time with their friends rather than the family. Similarly if they seem to confide in others rather than you, try to be pleased that they are talking.
- Help them to keep themselves safe and reassure them that, in time, things will feel more back to ‘normal’.
- For some young people, the death of someone important tips them into really dangerous behaviour such as serious drug use, suicide attempts, self-harm, running away. Seek help as soon as you feel worried. Even if you can’t get the young person to accept it, you need it for yourself.
There are loads of ideas elsewhere on this website - go to:
- the young people section for activities, message boards, young people’s ideas and thoughts.
- elsewhere in this parents and carers section for more information on how grief affects children and young people and activities that may help.
- The shop for ideas on books and other resources.
You can also always ring the helpline on 08452 03 04 05 open 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday.
It happened to us. .
The following stories tell you a bit more about how children’s behaviour can be affected when someone important in their family dies.
Jenny, aged 3
Jenny’s dad, Simon, died after battling with cancer for 14 months. While he was ill, Jenny’s mum, Sarah, had to spend a lot of time looking after him, visiting him in hospital and trying to keep working. Jenny spent a lot of time with other family members and friends. Although her mum and dad explained that daddy was poorly, they themselves did not really believe that he would die. And, they wanted to protect their little daughter from worrying. Jenny never went to see her dad in hospital.
When Simon died, Jenny’s mum, Sarah, came straight home to tell Jenny what had happened. Sarah could hardly believe it herself but she tried to explain to Jenny that Daddy had been very ill, so ill that the doctors couldn’t make him better. And he had died. His body had stopped working. They would always love him in their hearts and remember him but he couldn’t come back to them. Jenny didn’t want to hear her mum telling her this and she ran out of the room and hid under the table in the kitchen. When her mum went to find her, she pretended she was a little baby who couldn’t talk or walk. Sarah was too exhausted to think straight and she spoke very sharply to Jenny which made them both cry! Then she gave Jenny a long cuddle and told her all over again about her daddy.
Jenny seemed to understand and for the next 10 days she was wonderfully well behaved. She was smiley to all the people who came to the house; she ate her meals without fussing which was unusual. When Jenny or one of her grandparents put her to bed, she appeared to go straight off to sleep and to sleep right through the night. Sarah was so relieved that Jenny seemed to be taking it so well and she decided not to take her to the funeral for fear of upsetting her.
A couple of days after the funeral, Sarah found Jenny sobbing inconsolably. After a long time trying and lots of coaxing, Sarah understood that Jenny had expected her daddy to come home once the funeral was over. She had been being extra good to make sure that that happened. Sarah explained again to Jenny what had happened to her daddy and tried to help her to understand that he would never come back. Jenny couldn’t really grasp the idea of ‘never’ but she was reassured by mum talking to her about her dad. They decided that they would make a special place in the garden which would be “Daddy’s Spot” and that Jenny would choose a bunch of flowers to take to the place where daddy’s body was, in the graveyard.
That night, Jenny couldn’t settle at bedtime. She kept coming down stairs complaining of tummy ache, headache, everything ache. At first Sarah was worried but she had a chat with a friend who was a nurse and she suggested that it might be that Jenny’s ‘inside hurt’ about her dad dying was being expressed as ‘outside hurts’, like tummy ache. When Sarah took Jenny back to bed, for the umpteenth time, they said a special goodnight to Daddy as well and Jenny was able to settle.
This happened again over several weeks, and Jenny sometimes woke in the night and came into her mum’s bed. Sarah found this quite comforting but her own mother did not think that it was at all a good idea. When she told the Health Visitor about it, she suggested that Sarah give herself a date when she would be more definite about getting Jenny back into her own bed, allowing both of them the comfort of sharing their nights for the time being.
Jenny had come through the ‘Terrible Two’s’ while Simon was ill but they seemed to come back with a vengeance. She wouldn’t get dressed or into the bath – or out of it once she had been persuaded in. Sarah felt exhausted herself and at her wits end. She half knew why Jenny was behaving like this but she couldn’t find the energy to work out what to do.
Then she read a booklet about children’s grief (link to shop on website) and realised that this was absolutely normal behaviour for a little girl in this situation. Although understanding it didn’t make the tantrums disappear overnight, it helped Sarah to cope with them and to stay calmer. She realised that while she needed to maintain some routines, that she could also be flexible and make time to do extra things with Jenny.
She also read that it was important to help Jenny to remember her father, both now and into the future, so she began telling her little stories about the time when her dad was well, when Jenny was a baby. Jenny also wanted to know about the times when she was not there, when she was with family or friends and Sarah could tell her about them. Jenny wanted to see photographs and to draw pictures of the stories and the events.
Sometimes Jenny seemed completely fine, as though nothing had happened. At first this worried Sarah but she realised that this is what it is like for children – they can switch off in a way that adults can’t. For Sarah, she never forgot for a moment what had happened but Jenny could get lost in play or a story.
Sarah started to make a little book for Jenny with the stories illustrated by photos and pictures (she was not very good at drawing but that didn’t seem to matter). Jenny added some of her own too. She also helped Jenny to collect together things that reminded her of her dad – his hairbrush, his funny baseball cap, a ticket to football. They put these in a special box and Jenny was able to show them to visitors, or go through them with her mum.
Jenny stayed very clingy for a while but because Sarah wasn’t worried about it, it was not a problem. Gradually, Jenny’s confidence returned and though she – and Sarah, too – had good days and bad days, life began to feel more manageable. Sarah found life exhausting – trying to do everything that Simon had always done as well as all her ‘jobs’ felt impossible but she found that she was somehow managing. And she had learned never to turn down an offer of help!
Jason, aged 8
Jason was 8 when his mum died. She had dropped him at school as usual and had been killed in a car accident later that morning. The first Jason knew was that his dad, Steve, came to pick him up from school which never normally happened. Dad was living at his mum’s house and he and Jason went straight there. Steve and Nanny told Jason that Jason’s mum had died. Jason wanted to know exactly what happened. He felt that if only he could picture it, he would begin to believe it. But he couldn’t really. That evening he just pretended to be watching TV but really he was just trying not to think about life without mum.
Jason’s mum and dad had been separated for a while but Dad was being really nice about Mum now and that felt great. Dad didn’t know what to say for the best but he did keep mentioning Mum and asking Jason if he was alright. Jason wanted to go to his own house and Dad took him there to collect some of his things. When they got there they both cried and Dad gave Jason a big hug. Mum had always been one for hugs and getting a hug from Dad made Jason cry all the more. But it felt really comforting too. And they sat down on the stairs and talked about Mum. Dad explained why he had moved back to his Mum’s and Jason finally understood all kinds of events and half heard conversations. This made him feel able to ask other questions about Mum and what it was like to be dead.
Nanny didn’t think that Jason was old enough to go to the funeral but Dad had a word with a mate whose own mum had died when he was young. He told Dad to have a talk with Jason and to explain exactly what would be happening so that Jason could make up his own mind. Dad did this and they decided that Jason did want to be there. He also wanted to draw one of his special pictures (of cars, Mum had had quite a collection of those pictures on the fridge) to put in the coffin with Mum. Nanny still didn’t think it was right but she kept this to herself because it wouldn’t help Jason if she went on about it.
After the funeral, Dad worried that Jason seemed to be just getting on with life. He seemed to be missing his old bedroom more than anything. So, they brought most of his things to his room at Nanny’s for the time being. Jason was really pleased. Dad began to worry that he would upset Jason if he brought up the subject of his mum, so he stayed quiet.
Jason felt Ok at school and when out playing. His teacher had been great. She had talked to him about how to tell his class about his Mum dying, she was helping him to make a special book all about his Mum. She had even come to the funeral, which really surprised and pleased Jason and his dad.
However, it was getting harder and harder at home. Dad and Nanny did things all differently from Mum and no one else seemed to be missing Mum at all. Jason took to spending a lot of time upstairs in his room where Mum felt closer. He had trouble getting off to sleep at night and kept coming downstairs but Dad didn’t tell him off like he would normally have done. And often, Dad and Nanny seemed to be talking about important stuff and they would stop suddenly as though they didn’t want him to hear. This worried Jason. Also, he was very short tempered; it seemed the smallest thing would upset him and have him losing it. That was not at all like him.
Dad was more and more worried but he didn’t know what to do. One night when he was going to bed he heard Jason crying his heart out. They had a long talk and a cuddle and Dad realised that Jason wanted to talk about Mum and how things were since she died. Dad had been trying to do everything as he remembered Mum doing it but now he and Jason talked about it, he realised it would be much better if they made up their own ways. Jason was able to say that he was scared about what would happen in the future, what would happen to him if his Dad died as well. Dad reassured Jason, explaining that he was working out what would be for the best for both of them. He said he wouldn’t do anything big without Jason knowing all about it, well in advance. He also explained that if anything bad happened to him, Jason’s favourite aunty would take care of him.
In this conversation and in the ones that followed – often at bed time or in the car when Dad collected Jason from a friend - Jason was very relieved that his Dad thought about Mum too and they decided that they would make a special place in the garden where either of them could go, together or by themselves, when they wanted to think specially about her. Jason couldn’t wait to show Dad the book about Mum he was making at school and Dad had loads of good ideas for it, like asking his other granny and aunties what Mum was like when she was his age.
Jason still had times when he was so sad about his Mum that he just wanted to hide under his duvet. At other times, it was so unfair that he wanted to hit someone. But he felt better that now he could tell Dad and know that he would understand. And Nanny bought him a silly cushion that he could thump or chuck at the wall when he was upset. He was even quite relieved when Dad started sending him straight back up to bed with a telling off when he came down after bed time like he always used to.
Jack, aged 16
Jack’s older sister had been ill since before he went to secondary school and now he was in Year 11. She was two years older and though they had been very close when they were younger, they hadn’t had so much in common for a while. But, when Jemma got really sick, Jack had spent hours with her after his parents had gone to bed, just chilling and listening to music and watching DVDs. Sometimes they had talked but often they hardly said anything. Jack never really thought that Jemma might die though they sometimes talked about her not getting better. He found that he could tell Jemma things he couldn’t tell anyone else; she was like his best mate though she was rubbish at football talk.
Jack knew how stressy his parents were but didn’t know whether that was about life in general or Jemma or what. Sometimes he would have a good chat with his mum but usually she was doing at least 3 things at once and it was hard to keep her attention. So then he would get really cheesed off and slam out of the room. Mum used to come after him but she hadn’t done that for a while. He didn’t know what they thought would happen to Jemma, whether she really wouldn’t get better.
Jack and Dad shared a passion for football and used to go to matches together. Now Jack went with his mates – his granddad had given him a season ticket, his most prized possession. But, he and Dad used to take the match to pieces later at home and occasionally they watched a match on TV together. Once, he and Dad had sort of talked about Jemma not getting better but the conversation had sort of fizzled out before he could work out what Dad was trying to say.
Jack was just getting on with his life. He was doing OK at school without being a genius; he had a nice bunch of mates he hung about with after school and at weekends. Mum and Dad tried to be strict about him going out in the week but often he just went and nobody said anything.
So, when Jemma suddenly got rushed into hospital during the summer holidays and died that same day, Jack couldn’t believe it. He didn’t get to say good-bye to her because his mobile had run out of credit so his mum couldn’t get hold of him. His parents went completely to pieces and he found himself trying to look after them, even though he felt it should have been the other way around. He chose the music for Jemma’s funeral which took hours but he was really pleased to be able to do it and to pick the stuff she would have wanted. He made his mum cups of tea and tried to help his dad. Everyone commented on how helpful he was being and how proud Jemma would have been of him. Even then he knew that Jemma would have taken the mickey and laughed at his dreadful tea making, like she always did. But he was making a real effort, staying in, being around, talking to relatives. Late at night, he would just lie on Jemma’s bed, not doing anything.
After the funeral, Jack couldn’t keep up the good behaviour. He was just too angry and fed up. He felt betrayed. Why had this happened to him, why hadn’t he been warned. He was specially angry that his parents had known this might happen at any time and they hadn’t told him. All the resentment that he had been feeling about always being second best to Jemma – because she was ill – came spilling out of him. Every time he came home, his mum was sitting in the kitchen or on the phone and she hardly bothered to ask how his day had been. There was no food in the fridge. His dad just watched TV and drank beer.
So, he came home later and later. He started hanging out with a different group of boys who drank and hung out together. They weren’t into exams and Jack started to skip on his homework. He was really unhappy but he couldn’t tell anyone. There was a girl in his class whose mum had died and he used to talk to her sometimes. That felt good. But he stopped trying to talk to his parents.
The teachers at school had really not helped either. Though Jemma hadn’t been at the same school, they must have known about Jemma’s death because it had been all over the local paper. His Year Head gave him a real telling off in the corridor one day and he just had to walk away. She wrote to his parents saying that Jack was in danger of being put on report if he didn’t get himself together. When his Dad asked him about this, he went into a complete rage and really scared himself. It scared his parents too and shocked them out of their grief a bit.
They had a talk together and they began to think what it must be like for Jack too. They realised that behind his horrible attitude and behaviour, that Jack was as upset and shocked as they were. Dad said he would have a chat with Jack but every time he started, somehow it went wrong and ended up in an argument. Mum tried to have a conversation about Jemma but it got both of them crying. One night Mum felt she had to find a way to talk to Jack so she wrote him a letter. Seemed silly but she put it on his pillow. And while she was in there, she made his bed nicely for him and picked up some of mugs and plates from his floor. She realised, she had hardly been in his room since Jemma died.
His parents arranged to see the Year Head with Jack. They were quite angry that she had not seemed to make any allowances for what Jack had been going through. She in turn was devastated that the school had not made the connection with Jemma’s death; she said she would talk to Jack’s form tutor. She also offered for Jack to see the school counsellor when he felt ready. They talked about how Jack could catch up his course work and it all felt much more manageable. Dad and Mum also apologised for not letting the school know.
The next day, Jack came home from school at the right time, and gave his Mum a little hug. Mum had got his favourite tea and they all ate together. Another first for a long time. And when Dad mentioned maybe going to the match together on Saturday, Jack said he’d think about it. Later, Mum suddenly asked him when he’d known that Jemma was dying. He was completely taken by surprise and he just yelled that he had never known, they had never bothered to let him know. When he stormed up to his room, Mum came up after a bit and they had a proper conversation, about everything. Both of them cried and got upset but it felt OK.
Of course, Jack didn’t suddenly change overnight, back into the ‘good’ boy that he had never really been. He went on giving in his homework late but at least he was doing it. And his Mum or Dad checked that he was. He still spent most of his free time out with his mates – more and more back with the old crowd – but he quite liked being at home too and chatting over tea. He discovered that he and Mum both liked to be in Jemma’s room and they agreed they would keep it just as it was for the moment. His temper still flared up, especially at home but once he’d calmed down, he could talk to either his Mum or his Dad. He found sometimes he could genuinely forget about Jemma and his parent’s unhappiness. At first this made him feel very guilty but he checked a couple of websites and found that other people found this too. He really liked reading what other young people were feeling and thinking. Since his Mum had written him that letter, he’d written a couple of poems which made him feel close to Jemma because she had always been scribbling stuff. He would read them one day but not yet. For now, he was relieved that things seemed to make sense again so he could get on with his music, football, his friends and, yes, his Mum and Dad.
- Back to top