Article by: Dr.Martha Durham
There’s no doubt about it: children ask tough questions. As teachers to our children, it is our job to give them the best answer we can no matter what the question is. One of the toughest topics to tackle is death. Some parents might choose to avoid the topic completely, but that path can lead to even more anxiety. Your children want to hear from you. They want to feel safe. If you want to create a warm, loving bond with your children, take a deep breath and have the tough talk.
You might have some trouble starting the conversation about death for reasons that are very personal. You may be grieving yourself, and you want to protect your children from the pain and anxiety you feel. You may have your own hang-ups about death. You may be confused about where to start and what to say, or you might think that you could somehow harm your children with too much information. How you answer your children’s questions about death will affect whether they have a lot of fears about it, so it’s best to answer honestly, compassionately, and specifically.
If your child hears someone died in a car accident, he might start to believe that cars kill people. He might become scared of cars and start having panic and anxiety. You can help him work through that by talking about all the things we do to stay safe in our cars. We take defensive driving lessons, we wear our seat belts, and we follow traffic laws. All of those actions help lower our probability of something bad happening to us in our cars.
Questions about death typically start at ages four to seven. Younger children are going to ask more concrete, simple questions. You need to listen to find out what your child wants to know and what her fears are. You want to make sure you’re answering the question she’s really asking and not what you think she’s asking. If your child has learned her classmate’s mother died, she might ask you about death. However, she really might want to know who’s going to take care of her classmate now.
You don’t want to overwhelm your children with a bunch of adult information. The key to giving the right amount of information is to really understand where your children are in their development. Psychologist Jean Piaget was the first person to really study how children’s brains developed and how their thought process differed from adults. Piaget studied children from the time they were infants through adolescence. He determined development is based upon biology, and that children go through four universal stages of development as they mature. The concept of readiness is very important in Piaget’s theory, which determined that children should not be taught certain concepts or be given certain information until their brains are developed enough to process it. You can learn more about Piaget’s Cognitive Theory and how it applies to your child’s development here: http://www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html.
When you’re ready to have the difficult discussions about death, make sure you are reachingyour children at their development level; do not try to talk to them on a higher level, becausethat could lead to more fear and anxiety. Remember if you are nervous your child will be nervous, so try to relax. Do not force your child to answer questions or talk about their feelings. Allow him to listen and process what you are saying. Keep your conversations general and open-
ended so your child feels comfortable coming back to the topic later once she’s had time to
think about it on her own. No matter how hard it is, don’t forget that tackling these tough
subjects in the home strengthens the loving, trusting bonds between children and their parents.
All children are different, but typically, children around the age of six or seven are not developed enough to understand things outside themselves. They may not understand that death is irreversible, and they may expect the person who died to come back. They might think you can simply take the person to the doctor and make them better. They can’t understand death, because they have not died.
Their first encounter with death might be the discovery of a dead bird in the driveway. Your child might ask why the bird died, and your answer can be as simple as, “The bird got very sick and did not get better.” It could actually confuse a child of this age to
hear, “The bird went to heaven,” or, “God called the bird back to him.” Children younger thanage seven simply cannot understand that concept and may come to fear God or heaven if they are told that’s where animals and people go when they die. In their minds, that is a long way from home, their toys, and their parents who make them feel safe and secure.
You can be a little more open and direct about death with children age seven to 11. Their brain development is at a point where they want to learn, and this can help them understand more and reduce their fears about death. Children of this age may have many more questions. Their reasoning can be quite concrete, but it’s more realistic than younger children’s. They may be able to understand that guns, reckless driving, and cancer can lead to death. Generally, children age 12 and up are more abstract thinkers. They can understand many general categories that adults understand, and your conversations with them can be more adult. They can grasp that illness, old age, and accidents can cause death.
Your children might get very morbid and talk about rotting bodies and other gross details of death. That can be very disturbing, but it is not uncommon. Don’t freak out. That is simply how some children gain understanding and power over something very scary. No matter how old a person is, a warm, supportive environment reduces anxiety. When you’re talking to anyone about death, it’s important to listen to the emotional need they are expressing and not simply address their direct questions. You can explain that it is normal to feel sad and miss someone very much when they die, but we can remember that person and keep a part of them alive inside our heads.
If you find that someone you love has a constant preoccupation with death, panic, anxiety, or,even depression, it might be time to take a closer look at what’s going on. Intense fears surrounding death and crying a lot more than you would perceive as normal are signs they might need help from someone like me.