Chapter 4: Preschool children’s grief

Supporting young children in their grief

What the educator says
Ruth Lindsey-Armstrong, ECE instructor, talks about supporting young children in early childhood education environments.(3:22)Video transcript
Ruth Lindsey-Armstrong, ECE instructor, talks about the importance of acknowledging children's emotions.(3:22)Video transcript
Ruth Lindsey-Armstrong, ECE instructor, talks about helping young children support their grieving friend.(3:22)
What the parent says
Jenny talks about her daughter Mae sharing her story with the school.(3:22)Video transcript

“I had such a hard time with Fatima – after her dad died, she was good all day at school yet constantly acting out at home. Her teacher helped me find ways to help her express her feelings and eventually she started to calm down”. - Parent

Below are several ways you can help support young children in their grief. 

Click on each box for more information about each one.

Teach the difference between feelings and behaviours

Young children will need your help to learn the difference between their feelings and their behaviours. Let them know that all of their feelings are natural and healthy, even the really big ones, but that some behaviours aren’t appropriate.

Express grief in safe waysMany children benefit from adults helping them to find safe ways to express their grief feelings physically, such as by punching a pillow, kicking a soccer ball, tearing paper, scribbling, being held by someone, or hugging a stuffy.
Keep routinesGrieving children at this age really benefit from having consistent routines, such as regular bedtimes and mealtimes. Educators can support this by setting clear rules and limits in the classroom. Adults are often inclined to relax routines and expectations at this time and, although it’s important to be sensitive and flexible, too many changes in routine aren’t usually helpful.
Be patient and willing to repeatYoung children learn by repetition, so they may ask the same questions about the illness or death over and over again. Be patient and be willing to repeat your response many times.
Provide parents with resourcesMany parents of young children feel very uncertain about how to talk to their children about dying and death. If a child has experienced the death of a family member or if there has been a death in the early childhood education setting, consider sending parents resources that they can use for guidance. You may also offer to hold an educational session for parents one evening.
Click on each item on the left for more detail

Conversation Prompts

Teach the difference between feelings and behaviours.

“It’s okay to feel really angry right now. It’s not okay to hit people though. Let’s think of some other ways to get these angry feeling out so that no one gets hurt.”

Suggestions for the family in supporting their child

Below are some tips to work with the child’s family to help them take an open and honest approach with their young child.

  • Encourage the family to share short, honest statements about what happened. “Your dad died in a car accident.” 
  • Choose your words carefully.
  • Share appropriate resources with them.  

See also:The Dougy Centre Tip Sheet on Supporting Grieving Preschoolers

Books for Children

Supporting a grieving child