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Tough Conversations | Talking to Kids about Death

Copyright: gitusik / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: gitusik / 123RF Stock Photo

With tragedy after tragedy happening on a seemingly endless cycle in our world, I reached out to a local child Psychologist for some advice about how to talk about death with children. This solicitation was prompted after a heart-breaking conversation about death with my kindergartener, and realization that my husband and I do NOT have the answers to help her understand. To help better equip us if and when my daughter starts asking questions again, I reached out to Brie A. Moore, Ph.D., a Nevada Licensed Psychologist, who oh-so-kindly agreed to a Q&A. (more about Brie’s background and services below).

Here is some information that I hope is helpful if your kiddos start asking questions, too.

1. Is there a typical approach that you suggest to parents when discussing death with their children?

Discussions regarding death take courage, compassion and honesty. At times, children have questions regarding death out of curiosity, but oftentimes these conversations occur when families are facing difficult circumstances. Before approaching the discussion, make sure you are in a calm state of mind and aim to provide a sense of security, stability, and safety, even in the face of difficult emotions. Then, consider the following guidelines:

Be developmentally sensitive: Children experience death very differently than adults.
Very young children (ages 3-5) think of death as temporary and potentially reversible, whereas early school-aged children (ages 6-8) begin to have a more realistic understanding of the finality and consequences of death, but often believe it will never happen to them or anyone they know. By 9 years, children fully understand death as permanent and final. Ask your child if you can help by answering any questions. This will help guide your discussion and insure that it occurs at the appropriate developmental level.

Be emotionally available: Children need consolation, love, support and affection more than they need sophisticated explanations. Use a soothing voice, hold hands, put your arms around them and address them in a familiar setting. Many well-intentioned parents use phrases such as, “Don’t be sad.” “Don’t worry.” or “Be strong.” Rather than reassuring your child, this approach can communicate that feeling sad is wrong or a sign of weakness. Let your child know that feelings of sadness, anger, or fear are okay, normal and that they have permission to express them openly and freely. Encourage them to talk to you about their feelings and to receive comfort. For adolescents, encourage journaling and explain that grief is a natural expression of love for the person who died. Give love and reassurance and explain that the pain experienced now will not be this intense forever.

Be honest: Because death is such a difficult topic for adults too, many parents aim to protect their children from the pain of loss by providing less than accurate explanations. Trying to conceal death by using vague or inaccurate descriptions can create anxiety, confusion and mistrust. Children may develop fears of bedtime after being told a loved one “went to sleep and didn’t wake up”. Answer your child’s questions simply, honestly, and by using terms and concepts he or she understands. Correct any misconceptions, including any feelings of guilt or responsibility. Use these circumstances as opportunities to share your faith-based beliefs, say, “I don’t know,” or engage in more sophisticated discussions regarding life and death.

Be patient: Grief is not a linear process. Children are likely to display feelings of sadness intermittently over a long period of time, often at unexpected moments. It is normal during the weeks following the death for children to have difficulty expressing their feelings. They may blame themselves for the death or repeatedly ask the same questions. Some children may withdrawal, complain of stomach aches or headaches, regress or have difficulty separating from their parent. Other children may act out, seem unmotivated, or become aggressive. To escape from difficult feelings, adolescents may engage in risk-taking behaviors (e.g., alcohol or drug use, fighting, sexual experimentation), intellectualize or romanticize death, or act overly strong or mature. Adolescents may exhibit sleep disturbance, low self-esteem, difficulties with attention and concentration, and feelings of hopelessness about the future. They may question their religious beliefs and the meaning of life. Although upsetting, these behaviors are not necessarily evidence of problematic grief. Maintain structure, limits, and routine to create a sense of normalcy. Encourage children to share their feelings, hold a memorial, draw pictures, write stories or poems, make a scrapbook, look at old photos, say a prayer, light a candle or express feelings in their own way. If these behaviors persist, interfere with the normal routine, or the child or adolescent appears overwhelmed by grief, including talking about hurting or killing themselves, professional help is warranted.

2. I imagine this varies quite a bit from child to child, but generally, how up front/factual should you be with your children?

Wanting to be honest and factual is the most beneficial approach. Misinformation can create fear, confusion and mistrust. Discussing with a young child the permanence of death is important, but needs to occur with a great deal of care. For example, when a pet dies, a young child should be told it stops moving, doesn’t see or hear anymore, and won’t wake up again. They may need to have this explanation repeated several times and may need a great deal of comfort and reassurance. Unfortunately, there is no magic way to discuss death that will protect your child from the pain of loss.
Instead, aim to use these opportunities to build acceptance for a wide range of emotions, including difficult ones. Use these moments to build resilience. By allowing your child to experience sadness and grief, you show them that not only are they capable of coping with difficult circumstances, but that difficult emotions are important because they help us to see clearly what we truly value.

3. Talking to my friends who have kids, there seems to be a very big divide over kids’ reactions to the concept of death. Some friends say their kids aren’t phased by it at all, and are totally emotionless, other friends say their kids are completely obsessed with the idea but not scared, per se, and yet others say their kids are very worried about the idea. Since there’s not “one size fits all” solution, what’s the best guidance you can give to parents if/when their child brings up the topic?

These differing styles can be related to the child’s developmental understanding of death, individual temperament, the child’s coping style, and the family’s typical degree of comfort with emotional expression. For example, a young child with a predisposition towards anxious or avoidant coping, may express a high degree of discomfort during even discussions about death, whereas an early elementary schoolaged child who is more likely to approach novel situations with curiosity may be interested in better understanding the concept of death and its implications – and therefore ask endless questions. Similarly, it’s not uncommon for adolescents who struggle to cope with difficult emotions to engage in denial or appear indifferent when the topic of death arises. This approach, rather than a genuine lack of concern, may be an attempt to avoid difficult emotion altogether. When deciding how to approach the topic of death with your child or adolescent, be sure to consider how he or she typically responds to emotional content. Know your child. Does your child approach the world the same way you do or does he or she have a very different emotional style? Does your child typically respond to difficult situations in a similar way to yourself or to your spouse? Does your family openly express emotion or do you promote a culture of strength, humor, or avoidance? The level of detail you provide, the amount of reassurance your child needs, and the degree of sophistication of the conversation will all be guided by your child’s temperament and your family’s values.

4. The news has been quite grim lately. What guidance can you give to parents when about talking about current events with their kids?

In the wake of the Paris attacks and now, most recently, the San Bernardino shootings, we may find our lives touched by tragedy on a regular basis. This occurs even despite our best efforts to shield our children from the evil in the world. Like most difficult issues that arise throughout development, the most important thing to remember is to take a proactive stance. Although difficult, talk to your child about what is happening. Children often learn about these events from others and without guidance from a trusted adult, may overestimate their personal risk of danger. These conversations can help a child feel safer and more secure. Approaching difficult topics head-on will also teach your child that you will be there for them when they feel scared or confused. With this in mind, parents may wish to consider the following guidelines:

Stay Calm: From early in infancy children engage in “social referencing” to determine how to react in a given situation. When a trusted adult responds with fear, panic, and distress, despite calming words, the child too will respond in a fearful manner. First and foremost, parents should remain calm and emphasize that the child and family are safe.
Reassure Safety: Reassure your child that you, their teachers, and other caregivers are there to protect them. For older children, you may also find it helpful to highlight their many capabilities and the role that they play in maintaining their personal safety across various situations. Reassure them that you will be available to answer any questions or talk about this topic again in the future. Reassure them that they are loved. A recent viral video after the Paris attacks illustrates this nicely:

Limit Media Exposure: During times of tragedy, we may find ourselves tuned into various media sources and inundated with details of the event. While important to be informed, avoid excessive exposure and rehashing of the event on television, radio, and other sources. Constant exposure to these images and stories can heighten everyone’s anxiety. When answering your child’s questions, start with asking them what they know and remain truthful, providing facts at a level they can understand. Remember, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
Maintain Normalcy: In the face of tragedies our lives are often turned upside down.
For children, routine provides a sense of normalcy, safety, and security. As soon as feasible, return to a normal routine. This may include going back to school, attending after school activities, keeping bedtime routines consistent, and maintaining typical limits and disciplinary practices.
Encourage Talking about Feelings: Lastly, it is important to give your child permission to express difficult feelings, including feelings of fear, uncertainty, anger or sadness. Talk about how you feel and model for your child age-appropriate language for accurately expressing their emotions. Encouraging this type of discussion provides opportunities to normalize your child’s reaction and helps them better understand their feelings. With this knowledge, children may be better able to cope as they can communicate how they feel instead of acting out. Other coping strategies may include taking an active role in helping others. Consider ways that you and your child can help victims and their families. Taking a helping role may reduce feelings of helplessness. As Mr. Roger’s said, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

5. Outside of the services you provide for families, can you suggest any resources for parents who might be struggling with this topic?

Ages 3-6: When Dinosaurs Die:A Guide to Understanding Death (Brown, L.); The Tenth
Good Thing About Barney (Viorst, J.).
Ages 6-9: Annie and the Old One (Miles, M.); Tear Soup (Schwiebert, P). Ages 9-12: Walk Two Moons (Creech, S.).
Ages 13+: When Death Walks In (Scrivani, M.).
Adults: Talking about Death. A Dialogue Between Parents and Child (Grollman, E.).

Centering Corporation www.centering.org
Connect For Kids www.connectforkids.org
Crisis, Grief, and Healing (links to hundreds of online resources) www.webhealing.com
Grief Watch www.griefwatch.com
Explaining the News to Our Kids CommonSenseMedia.org
Children & Grief: Guidance and Support Resources Scholastic.com
The Road to Resilience APA.org
Families looking for a local grief center providing peer support and education may find The
Solace Tree, here in Reno, to be a valuable resource (www.solacetree.org).

Also, if you could provide me some details about you, the services you provide, and your best contact information, I’d love to include that for parents who might want to reach out for extra assistance.

As seen on a Sussex Directories Inc site
As seen on a Sussex Directories Inc site

Brie A. Moore, Ph.D. is a Nevada Licensed Psychologist providing evidence-based, behavioral healthcare for children, adolescents and their families. She specializes in the cognitive-behavioral treatment of common childhood concerns, including anxiety, depression, ADHD, and noncompliance. For more information visit www.drbriemoore.com or call 775.786.7881.

Disclaimer: This information is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute the practice of psychology, medicine, nursing or other professional health care services, including the giving of medical advice, and no doctor/patient relationship is formed. The use of information here or materials referenced here is at the user’s own risk. The content of this information is not intended to be a substitute for professional psychological or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should not disregard, or delay in obtaining, medical advice for any medical condition they may have, and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.


About Tracie Barnthouse

Tracie Barnthouse
A Midwestern girl who has laid roots in Reno, Tracie Barnthouse is the mother of two {A (4) and E (9 months)}, and wife of one (Token). Publicist by day, her job keeps her busy, and she’s still learning that tightrope walk of work/life balance. Barnthouse moved to Reno in 2012 from Sicily, Italy, where she lived for four years. Prior to that, four years were spent on the island of Guam, but she’s come to realize that home isn’t defined by a speck on a map. From overseas travel tips with infants and toddlers to glimpses of everyday life, she hopes to share stories that help us realize we’re all on this crazy ride called Motherhood together.

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