Iris Mini: How Children Understand Death

Depending upon age and stage of development, children have different understandings of death. It is common for children of any age who are under stress to unintentionally return to emotions or behaviors from an earlier age. Coping is dynamic and each child (and parent) will grieve a death differently.

The following are general guidelines, but each child’s life experience, family system, and temperament can also impact their understanding of death.


Understanding of Death

Infants & Toddlers (ages 0 – 3)


- Do not understand death or have a strong sense of time

- Do have a behavioral reaction to change in routine

- Can sense and are impacted by emotions of others


- Do not understand the permanence of death

- May ask unfiltered questions about when the person who died will come back or link something unrelated that happened at the same time to the death

- May talk about death casually, almost with a matter-of-fact tone

- Process changes related to death through play and repetition

Pre-schoolers (ages 3 – 6)

- May not fully grasp that death is permanent

- May want to understand more about “why” and “how” death happens

- May express feelings of missing the person who died and wanting them to be a part of activities or events

- May think something was their fault or that they are going to die

- Can benefit from processing changes related to death through play and repetition

- May benefit from children’s books about a death

School-age (ages 6 – 12)

- Can understand the permanence of death

- May have worries and questions about what will happen to them now that the person has died

- May show interest in how someone has died, what that experience is like for them, and what happens after death

- Can participate in rituals or remembrance service

- Oftentimes will express fear about death or people close to them leaving

Teenagers (ages 12 – 18)

- Have a full understanding of the permanence of death due to developing abstract thinking skills

- Begin to think about what death means to them, what happens after death, and how to manage feelings associated with grief and loss

- May question spiritual beliefs

- May develop rituals or observances of the death and want to participate in ways of remembering the person who died

- Can process death through talking, art, writing, or other activities

- May have specific event triggers for grief feelings

- Can feel alone and that peers do not understand their loss