Talking to your child or teen about death can feel overwhelming. These conversations can be challenging. They require a parent to navigate both the depth of their child’s understanding and emotional processing. When considering how to talk to kids about death, a parent may encounter the complexity of their own relationship with death.
When talking about death, it becomes particularly important to remain self-aware, open, and patient. This will allow you to hear what you child is saying and respond in a helpful way.
Children have different understandings of what it means to die based on experience and developmental level. Read on for some tips for talking about death with different age groups.
Children under five generally do not understand that death is permanent and unavoidable. When talking to children this young about death, be as clear and factual as possible. Be prepared that they may not grasp the extent of what you are trying to convey.
- Explain simply what has happened, and relate it to what they have experienced. Examples could include a fly, a plant, a pet, a character that permanently died in a movie.
- Tell your child what to expect, allow them to ask questions, and answer them as factually and concisely as possible.
- Allow emotions to arise if they do, and validate them by expressing that the emotions (whether sadness, anger, or fear) are okay.
- Help your child put a name to the emotions, and help them identify ways to feel better when they are ready. Allow their questions to dictate where or how deep the discussion might go.
This age group is likely to understand that death is permanent. However, they may not yet understand that it will happen to them. If they grasp the concept of death, try to offer helpful factual information about what has happened and what they can expect. That could include that they will not see the person again, and what the funeral or the reactions of others might look like.
- Allow the discussion to be navigated by their questions.
- Questions from children of this age group may be surprising or complex. Stay clear, factual, and neutral when possible.
- This can be an opportunity to discuss your beliefs, as well as open the door to other helpful beliefs/concepts related to death.
As with all children, challenging conversations can also be an opportunity to build self-care skills by helping children identify emotions. You can also help children identify healthy ways to cope with strong emotions.
With this group, the process of explaining death is essentially the same–explain facts and what to expect. Remember to leave room for questions, and validate and empathize with emotions.
- This is the general age range in which children begin to understand that they too will eventually die. This can come with some more intense emotions and questions.
- Validate fears related to dying, and offer comfort authentically. For your family, this may involve reassuring them of the likely length of time before that happens. It may involve offering faith-based or spiritual beliefs. It may also include acknowledging your own fear or how you choose to deal with it.
- These conversations are opportunities to shape not only the way your child thinks about death, but also how they think about the value of life. Address them with an open heart and an understanding of their fear or sadness, whatever it looks like.
Teenagers most likely have a factual and realistic concept of death. Even so, they may encounter obstacles in emotionally processing death or understanding the reality of their own mortality.
Teenagers are in a developmental and neurological stage in which they understand the possibility and reality of death. However, they are less likely to fully apply that lens of understanding to themselves and their own lives.
Teens trying to mentally process a death that has occurred may demonstrate denial or defiance. They may withdraw and have difficulty expressing their internal state.
- When supporting a teen in understanding death, remain as nonjudgmental as possible. Try to identify if there is any information or resource that might be helpful.
- Be open and honest in the face of questions, offer what help you can, and ultimately, be a source of support.
- Death is challenging to confront. It can bring feelings of isolation. While there may not always be a way to make it easier, sometimes the only thing needed is the knowledge that someone is there for us.
Resources Help Too
Many books have been written on the topic of death and grieving that can help parents understand more about how to talk to kids about death. These books range from children’s picture books to young adult novels. Depending on the age of your child, using books to help answer questions and provide comfort can be very helpful. The Fairfax County Parent Resource Center book database, gives parents the ability to search for books on the topic of grief and loss by any age group.
Reflect on Your Own Feelings
The way we teach our children about death will likely echo our own feelings about it. If you want to help your child through the uncertainty and anxiety of understanding death, the best thing you can do is address any death-related fears you might have – with yourself through reflection or writing, someone you trust, or a therapist.
This is a timeless conflict of a conscious mind, and there are virtually limitless tools available when learning how to talk to kids about death. Whether you choose to confront your existential reality with faith, science, spirituality, or simply gratitude, try to share whatever helps you with your child.
Kate is the Founder and Clinical Director of Sage House Counseling & Art Therapy. With nearly ten years of clinical experience, I partner with you to connect back to your authentic, true self. The self that desires happiness, abundance and greater self-compassion. I work with clients just like you because I believe we all have the innate ability to heal and grow when we are heard and supported.