Discussing death can be a daunting task for any adult, let alone when the conversation needs to be had with a child. The concept of death is complex and often abstract, making it difficult for children to fully understand. But like all other life events, it's inevitable that this topic will come up at some point and it's crucial for parents to handle it in the right way.
Understanding children's perception of death
Before you venture into this difficult conversation, it's important to understand how children perceive death. Their understanding is largely influenced by their age and cognitive development.
Children under the age of 5 or 6 often see death as temporary and reversible, much like what they see in cartoons. They believe the person or pet who died will wake up or return. It's only around the age of 7 to 10 that kids start to comprehend that death is permanent. They might also have a lot of questions about the specific details, like where the person or pet goes after they die or how their body functions after death.
Teens, on the other hand, understand death on a much deeper level. They are aware of the finality of death and can experience grief much like adults do. However, they might struggle to express their emotions or may try to hide them in an attempt to appear strong or mature.
Guidelines for discussing death with children
When the time comes to discuss death with your child, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
Be honest: Honesty is key when discussing death with children. Avoid euphemisms that might confuse them such as 'passed away' or 'went to sleep'. Instead, use simple and clear language to explain what happened.
Reassure them: It's natural for children to feel scared or anxious when they learn about death. Reassure them that it's okay to feel sad and that they are safe. Encourage them to express their feelings and let them know you're there to support them.
Encourage questions: Children are naturally curious and will likely have many questions. Encourage them to ask anything that comes to their mind and answer to the best of your ability. If you don't know the answer, it's okay to admit it and suggest that you can find out together.
Keep it simple: Use age-appropriate language and explain things in a way that your child can understand. Avoid going into too much detail about the circumstances of the death unless your child specifically asks for it.
Validate their feelings: Let your child know that it's okay to feel a range of emotions and that everyone grieves in their own way. Encourage them to express their feelings whether it's through talking, drawing or other forms of expression.
Provide stability: Try to keep their routine as normal as possible. This can provide a sense of security during a difficult time.
Discussing death with children is never easy, but with understanding, patience, and open communication, you can help them navigate this difficult topic.