I would like to get a list of all the processes that descend (e.g. children, grand-children, etc) from $pid. This is the simplest way I've come up with:

pstree -p $pid | tr "\n" " " |sed "s/[^0-9]/ /g" |sed "s/\s\s*/ /g"

Is there any command, or any simpler way to get the full list of all descendant processes?

  • Is there a reason you need them all on one line? What are you doing with that output? I have a feeling that this is an xy problem, and you are asking the wrong question.
    – jordanm
    Mar 12, 2013 at 17:03
  • I don't care about the format as long as it's clean (i.e. I don't care about '\n' delimited vs. ' ' delimited). Practical use case is: a) a daemonizer script I wrote out of pure masochism (specifically, the "stop" functionality has to deal with whatever tree of processes the daemonized process spawned); and b) a timeout script that will kill whatever the timed-out process managed to create.
    – STenyaK
    Mar 12, 2013 at 21:06
  • 2
    @STenyaK Your use cases make me think you're looking for process groups and a negative argument to kill. See unix.stackexchange.com/questions/9480/…, unix.stackexchange.com/questions/50555/… Mar 12, 2013 at 21:51
  • @Gilles using ps ax -opid,ppid,pgrp,cmd I see there are many processes that share the same pgrp as the exact subtree I want to kill. (Additionally, I can't see the setpgrp program listed anywhere in debian stable packages: packages.debian.org/… )
    – STenyaK
    Mar 13, 2013 at 7:42
  • 1
    Another use case: renice/ionice on a whole process tree that's eating too many resources, e.g. a large parallel build.
    – Cheetah
    Sep 25, 2013 at 4:02

8 Answers 8


The following is somewhat simpler, and has the added advantage of ignoring numbers in the command names:

pstree -p $pid | grep -o '([0-9]\+)' | grep -o '[0-9]\+'

Or with Perl:

pstree -p $pid | perl -ne 'print "$1\n" while /\((\d+)\)/g'

We're looking for numbers within parentheses so that we don't, for example, give 2 as a child process when we run across gif2png(3012). But if the command name contains a parenthesized number, all bets are off. There's only so far text processing can take you.

So I also think that process groups are the way to go. If you'd like to have a process run in its own process group, you can use the 'pgrphack' tool from the Debian package 'daemontools':

pgrphack my_command args

Or you could again turn to Perl:

perl -e 'setpgid or die; exec { $ARGV[0] } @ARGV;' my_command args

The only caveat here is that process groups do not nest, so if some process is creating its own process groups, its subprocesses will no longer be in the group that you created.

  • Child processes are arbitrary and may or may not use process groups themselves (I cannot assume anything). However your answer comes the closest to what seesm to be achievable in Linux, so I'll accept it. Thanks.
    – STenyaK
    Jul 17, 2013 at 11:57
  • This was very useful ! Feb 11, 2016 at 20:43
  • The pstree pipes will also include the thread ids, i.e. the IDs of the threads a $pid has started. Jan 21, 2017 at 9:05
  • You can use single grep: pstree -lp | grep -Po "(?<=\()\d+(?=\))"
    – puchu
    Mar 13, 2018 at 21:48
  • None of this seems to work in macOS...
    – reportaman
    Dec 1, 2021 at 8:39
descendent_pids() {
    pids=$(pgrep -P $1)
    echo $pids
    for pid in $pids; do
        descendent_pids $pid
  • It would be only worth noting that this will work on modern shells (bash, zsh, fish, and even ksh 99), but might not work on older shells, e.g. ksh 88
    – grochmal
    Jul 29, 2016 at 23:34
  • @grochmal, see my answer below for a traversal solution that does work in ksh-88. Jan 21, 2017 at 9:06

There is also the issue of correctness. Naively parsing the output of pstree is problematic for several reasons:

  • pstree displays PIDs and the ids of threads (names are shown in curly braces)
  • a command name might contain curly braces, numbers in parentheses that make reliable parsing impossible

If you have Python and the psutil package installed you can use this snippet to list all descendant processes:

pid=2235; python3 -c "import psutil
for c in psutil.Process($pid).children(True):

(The psutil package is e.g. installed as a dependency of the tracer command which is available on Fedora/CentOS.)

Alternatively, you can do an breadth-first traversal of the process tree in a bourne shell:

ps=2235; while [ "$ps" ]; do echo $ps; ps=$(echo $ps | xargs -n1 pgrep -P); \
  done | tail -n +2 | tr " " "\n"

For computing the transitive-closure of a pid, the tail part can be omitted.

Note that the above doesn't use recursion and also runs in ksh-88.

On Linux, one can eliminate the pgrep call and instead read the information from /proc:

ps=2235; while [ "$ps" ]; do echo $ps ; \
  ps=$(for p in $ps; do cat /proc/$p/task/$p/children; done); done \
  | tr " " "\n"' | tail -n +2

This is more efficient because we save one fork/exec for each PID and pgrep does some additional work in each call.


In each of your two (seemingly very artificial) use cases, why do you want to kill some unfortunate process's sub-processes? How do you know better than a process when its children should live or die? This seems like poor design to me; a process should clean up after itself.

If you really do know better, then you should be forking these sub-processes, and the 'daemonized process' is apparently too dumb to be trusted to fork(2).

You should avoid keeping lists of child processes or grovelling through the process tree, eg by putting the child processes in a separate process group as suggested by @Gilles.

In any case, I suspect that your daemonized process would be better off creating a worker thread pool (which necessarily dies along with its containing process) than a deep tree of sub-sub-sub-processes, which something somewhere then has to clean up.

  • 2
    Both use cases are used in a continuous integration/testing environment, so they have to deal with the possibility of a bug existing in the child process/es. This bug may manifest itself as inability to properly shutdown themselves or their children, so I need a way to ensure that I can close them all in the worst case.
    – STenyaK
    Jul 17, 2013 at 11:55
  • 1
    In that case, I'm with @Gilles and @Jander; process groups are the best way. Sep 13, 2013 at 13:58

The shortest version I have found that also deals correctly with commands like pop3d:

pstree -p $pid | perl -ne 's/\((\d+)\)/print " $1"/ge'

It deals wrongly if you have commands that have weird names like: my(23)prog.

  • 1
    This doesn't work for commands that are running some thread (because pstree prints those IDs, as well). Jan 21, 2017 at 9:08
  • @maxschlepzig Noticed that very problem with ffmpeg using threads. Though, from quick observations, it seems that the threads are given with their name inside curly braces, { }.
    – Chindraba
    Feb 17, 2019 at 23:39

This Linux version needs /proc and ps only. It's adapted from the last piece of @maxschlepzig's excellent answer. This version reads /proc directly from the shell instead of spawning a sub-process in a loop. It's a bit faster and arguably slightly more elegant, as this thread title requests.


# Print all descendant pids of process pid $1
# adapted from https://unix.stackexchange.com/a/339071

while [ "$ps" ]; do
  echo $ps
  unset ps1 ps2
  for p in $ps; do
    read ps2 < /proc/$p/task/$p/children 2>/dev/null
    ps1="$ps1 $ps2"
done | tr " " "\n" | tail -n +2

Here's a pgrep wrapper script which lets you use pgrep and get all descendants at the same time.



# the delimiter argument must be the first arg, otherwise it is ignored
if [ "$1" == "-d" ]; then
    shift 2

newpids=$(pgrep "$@")
if [ $status -ne 0 ]; then
    exit $status

while [ "$pids" != "$newpids" ]; do
    newpids=$( { echo "$pids"; pgrep -P "$(echo -n "$pids" | tr -cs '[:digit:]' ',')"; } | sort -u )
if [ "$delim" != $'\n' ]; then
    for pid in $pids; do
        if [ $first -ne 1 ]; then
            echo -n "$delim"
        echo -n "$pid"
    echo "$pids"

Invoke the same way you'd invoke normal pgrep, such as pgrep_recursive -U $USER java to find all Java processes and sub-processes from the current user.

  • 1
    Since this is bash, I have a feeling the code used for joining the PIDs with the delimiter could be replaced with setting IFS and using arrays ( "${array[*]}").
    – muru
    Apr 10, 2017 at 1:22

I built a (Linux/procfs) tool called Procpath to query the process tree using JSONPath.

To get all descendant process' comma-separated PIDs of a non-root process (i.e. for PID=1 use simpler query ..stat.pid) it's:

$ procpath query -d, "..children[?(@.stat.pid == 15849)]..pid"

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