Talking to young children about death
It can be hard to talk to young children about death. You might worry about how well they'll understand or answer. So many times, adults try to protect their kids by not telling them what's happening. But if they don't know what's happening, children may sense something is wrong and become worried and confused. They might rather know, even if it's bad news than have to deal with not knowing. So, telling our children the truth can help them feel supported.
So, what can we do as adults to help our kids understand such a complicated subject?
When talking to our children about something important, we must be honest. We don't want their little minds to start to wander and come up with their ideas.
When trying to explain to our children when someone has passed away, we must first define death.
Knowing how death works on a simple biological level can be helpful—for example, talking about the body and how it works. Explain that when someone dies, their heart stops beating, their lungs stop working, so they can't breathe, and their brain stops working.
If your family has any beliefs, tell your child about them and explain them in a simple way.
Children need to understand what happened to the person who died.
Try to explain it in a way that makes sense for their age and stage of development.
You could also try giving them a little bit of information at a time. This can help toddlers understand.
Use simple language.
It's easier to understand if you say "someone has died" than if you try to change the words.
Don't say things like "the person has gone to sleep" or "the person has left." Young children might not understand and be afraid to go to sleep or worry when you leave the house because they might think you won't come back.
It's common for children to think that something they said or did cause a person to die. Explain how and why they are not to blame. For example, you could say that the person died because their heart stopped working. Assure them that no one said or did anything that caused this to happen.
Make sure to give your child a lot of comfort. Let them know that people still care about them and will be there for them. A hug can make a big difference and make them feel like someone cares about them.
Hear what they have to say.
Adults sometimes try not to talk about the person who died to protect their children. Your child might want to talk about the person, though. They need to tell their story, which might help them remember the person who died. This is very important if they knew and cared about the person who died.
If you listen to what they say, you can find out what they know about what happened. And if things aren't quite right, you can let correct them.
You can also figure out how your child feels by listening to them. Don't tell them what they should think or feel. Instead, tell them whatever they're feeling is fine, whether it's sadness or anger.
Be ready for your child to be interested and ask the same questions repeatedly. This can be scary, but remember that it's part of their need to feel safe and helps them figure out what's happening.
When they ask you a question, you could start by asking, "What do you think?" Then you could base your answer on what they think happened.
Talk about how you feel.
Don't try to hide your sadness; it's okay to cry in front of your child.
It might help them to let them know why you're crying. For example, you could say that people cry for different reasons, like when someone close to them dies and wants to show their sadness or loss.
Tell them it's also okay if they don't want to cry.
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