Common Reactions to Sibling Loss

What are the most common reactions to sibling loss? How do siblings react at different stages of childhood? Here are some generalities:

Reactions Among Infants

These children may be too young to know the specifics of the tragedy, but they can pick up cues from people around them. Babies can sense that something is different in their environment.  Parents who care for them appear distant and upset.  Adults may stop interacting with them. The baby experiences less security; their needs may not be fully met. The baby is learning that what once was a happy and safe world is now uncertain.

How Toddlers React to Sibling Loss

Older babies and toddlers will have enough of a rudimentary handle on language to perceive that something “bad” and “sad” has occurred. They may hear the word “died” but not fully infer the meaning.

One- and two-year-olds are very aware that a person is missing from their lives, and Mommy and Daddy are upset. Being egocentric, they may figure that parents are displeased with them, not accurately identifying the real cause. They also have mastered the idea of object permanence with inanimate objects, and this cognitive ability may pave the way to misunderstanding. Children of this age may assume the sibling will return at any time.

If their own needs are not met, they may suspect that they are being punished so they may misbehave to get attention.  Regressive behaviors may manifest, either as unconscious ways of grabbing the spotlight from distracted parents or as outlets for the stress and tension that have been brewing under the psychological surface.

How Preschoolers Respond to Sibling Loss

Children in this age group are old enough to have a basic concept of death as tragic and permanent, but they do not grasp it entirely. Exposure to TV and video games, which can stimulate developmentally appropriate fantastical thoughts, can foster the assumption that the deceased sibling will still materialize. This is the maturational stage in which “magical thinking” becomes pronounced, and along with egocentrism, may cause the child to perceive himself as powerful and therefore responsible for the sibling’s fate.

These children are struggling with ideals such as “right” and “wrong,” especially regarding emotions of jealousy and aggression. Normal sibling rivalry—fights, disrespect, insensitivity, selfishness—can be the source of guilt as the preschool child becomes convinced that it is his or her fault that the brother or sister died.  Outbursts of anger—at the sibling, at the parents, at God, at themselves—can boil over and create misbehavior and aggression.

Kids Naturally Protect Themselves

Kids in this age group are just beginning to utilize language, and sometimes they have difficulty verbalizing feelings. They are becoming more empathetic, and they know that crying or talking about the sibling distresses Mommy and Daddy, so kids may bottle up their emotional pain rather than discuss their worries with parents. Their attention span may be short, so it is not unusual for preschoolers to appear sad one minute then go running off to play the next. These seemingly paradoxical reactions result from distractibility and emerge from the psyche’s efforts to protect the child; basically, the very young person can only handle a traumatic loss one step at a time.

This fact may be somewhat disconcerting to adults, but this is a normal scenario for a child. Preschoolers demand attention which can encourage behavioral problems as parents withdraw. Youngsters in this age group are very curious as cognitive abilities are growing. They may ask many, sometimes graphic, questions, and they take language very literally. For most of these children, this event is the first real experience with death, and as a result, they have nothing with which to compare it. These children are old enough to form memories and make limited intellectual conclusions but still young enough to do so inaccurately or inefficiently.

Elementary School Children React to Sibling Loss

Children between the ages of 6 and 10 have a better understanding of death.  These kids understand the permanence of death, and they know—at least in theory—that mere thoughts do not cause someone to die.

Knowing this on a logical level and truly accepting it may be two different things. Fantastical ideas may fade gradually, and it is not unheard of for children to continue assuming guilt for expressed negative ideas and comments. Kids of this age are assuming more and more responsibility, and especially if a surviving child is the older sibling, he or she may express self-blame for not protecting the younger one.

Emotional Withdrawal

These children may look and act like little adults occasionally, but it is important to keep in mind that they do not have the rationality or the psychological resources of someone older. It is easy to presume that they are coping well, especially when they appear to be acting normally, but this may not be the case. Children of elementary school age are better at hiding their feelings and thoughts when they fear these are abnormal or will get them into trouble. This emotional withdrawal may lead to less attention and fewer opportunities for adults to clarify the child’s reasoning.

Kids may misunderstand medical and technical terms, resulting in further confusion. They may have no conception of normal grief, and their own reactions can scare them. They may worry that something is wrong with them—either physically or psychologically. The reality that the world is a dangerous place hits home at this stage; if something bad can happen to my brother or sister, it can happen to me as well.

How Teens Respond

Teens are more adept at cognitively considering death, but they are still in a vulnerable place emotionally. Death of a sibling at this stage can signify an end of innocence of sorts; the cold, hard reality that no one is safe from this fate can become a truism that cannot be avoided. At a stage that is already fraught with confusion and turmoil, grief further rocks security and a sense of safety.

Adolescents pride themselves on being independent and capable of handling issues on their own, but if this event is their first experience dealing with death, they may need help but are too proud to ask for it. The desire to be independent and less reliant on parents may cause adolescents to withdraw and keep thoughts and feelings to themselves.

Teens Often Feel Alone

Teenage siblings often struggle with their relationships prior to the loss. Brothers and sisters frequently report feeling less attached to brothers and sisters each other at this maturational stage. If an adolescent sibling dies, the survivor may be filled with regret and guilt over the weakened relationship. Teens can absorb the finality of the tragedy, and the ability to think hypothetically allows them to painfully contemplate a future without their sibling.

Sometimes the sibling was an ally against the common enemy of the parents; now the survivor is on a solitary path. In addition, teens may find themselves at odds with peers at this juncture. Since it is quite likely that few of their friends have had similar issues with which to contend, young people may find it difficult to relate and share their pain with anyone. The typical adolescent lament that “no one understands me” may be magnified. This is also the stage where negative behaviors can be even more dangerous, and it is important to be on the lookout for risk-taking or self-destructive acts, including substance abuse, cutting, and unsafe sex.

Each Child’s Grief is Unique

Please remember that all children are unique; these are merely suggestions to bear in mind. Again, children may need to “re-work” the grief at each stage and they may falter in doing so. In other words, a toddler may seem to have adjusted well after the death of an older sibling. But five years later, as the child enters elementary school, he or she may process the traumatic event all over again, and this time may have increased difficulty. It is not unusual for young ones to assimilate painful knowledge repeatedly as their brains and psyches adjust and function more maturely.

In essence, the grief recurs, and this reworking is necessary for psychological growth.In the Handbook of Thanatology (2013), Kevin Ann Oltjenbruns uses the term “regrief” to label this process.  In the same volume, author Gerry Cox explains how subsequent dramatic events may create an overreaction partly as an outlet for the unexpressed pain and sorrow that was not adequately acknowledged earlier. For example, a child may become distraught over the death of a pet or the loss of a favorite toy as he or she projects the displaced emotions from previous losses onto the current situation.

It is necessary for astute parents and other adults to be cognizant of the possibility that children, and even adults, may displace their sadness unconsciously. Our tears over misplacing a cherished possession may not merely represent the current hole in our heart, but also may be signifying the larger emptiness we retain for hurts past.

This article is excerpted from Turning the Page: Helping a Child Cope with the Loss of a Sibling. Learn more here: 

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Sue Trace Lawrence

Sue Lawrence is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology who began teaching at Ursinus in 2011. An alumna of Ursinus who graduated with a B.S. in psychology in 1983, she earned her M.Ed. and certification in School Counseling at West Chester University. At the present time she is working toward a graduate certificate in neuropsychology from Ball State University. While a student at Ursinus, she served as the teaching assistant for Experimental Psychology and earned Departmental Honors for her research on learned helplessness. In addition, her original sociology research was published in Pennsylvania Folklife. In addition to teaching psychology at UC and other colleges, Sue has worked as a counselor and educational consultant, along with holding teaching and administrative positions in early childhood programs. She is a certified PQAS trainer for the state of Pennsylvania and provides professional development trainings for early childhood and school age staff in her position as Assistant Childcare Director for the Pottstown Branch of the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA. Sue has written and self-published a book of poems and short-stories in collaboration with her late brother entitled Sob Stories. Currently, Sue has been conducting original research with UC students on the topics of childhood loss, grief, and trauma. She is currently working on a children’s book on sibling loss and has published a handbook for adults entitled Turning the Page: Helping a Child Cope with the Loss of a Sibling. Her future research interests lie in further exploring how early childhood traumatic grief experiences influence children into adulthood.

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