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How to Talk to Kids about Death

Learn how to talk to kids about death in this Howcast video about child anxiety issues.


Today I'm going to talk to you about how to talk to your kids about death. I know it's a very scary topic for adults and certainly it is for children, but I think what you need to do is approach it like any topic that you need to give your child information and help them with. The first thing you want to think about when you want to talk to your child about death, certainly, is their age. That their age dictates what they can understand, and that means that a very young child doesn't understand the concept of gone forever or never coming back, and by that we mean, you know, certainly, an infant, toddler, even preschooler. When you get to the school age child, they begin to understand that the person isn't coming back, and certainly by age eight, nine, ten, they understand that the person won't come back, that it could happen to anyone, it could happen at any time, and it means that your body doesn't work anymore. So they may have more fears, but they also may have a lot more questions and curiosity about what happened and some of the details. Then with teenagers they're thinking much more about the reality and again the rest of their life and what that might mean about themselves and the mortality. And they have much more abstract ways that they're thinking about it.

Now in general, if the death was someone that was important and close to that child, then you really want to look at their reactions. Now, their reactions can vary quite a bit, from feeling distress and upset and possibly reacting to just the change in the environment if they're very young children, to older children, they may worry more about themselves, about other people, and something bad happening to them or getting hurt. And teenagers really worrying about the future and what would happen, again, to other people, and is it safe?

Now, when you talk to kids about death, so you want to understand their age and what they can understand, and then when you actually sit down and talk to them, you want to use the real language. Use the appropriate words, but use them in a way that fits the child's age. But you can use the word "died" or "sick" for a very young child. You might go into more detail with a 10 year old, or certainly with a 16 year old. But the more the real information is there, then the less they're going to rely on their imagination. The more you keep something a secret, the more they think it's something scary, so the best thing you can do is get it out there in the open, let them know you're there for the true answers. That they can trust you at a time when they may feel like their world is not so safe anymore, and that when they have questions they know who to go to. Now, also remember that it's not just one conversation when something big happens in a child's life. You may tell them and you may give them some information. They may have questions. Listen to their questions. Don't think about what your questions are. Don't assume what your children are thinking about. Ask them. Listen. Watch their behavior to understand more about how they're reacting and adjusting to any kind of significant death. And then go in with more information. And then make sure to not only give information about what happened, but also talk about feelings and how to cope with those feelings, so that everybody has a way to deal with what's in their head, about thoughts, as well as what's in their heart, about feeling and whoever that special person was.

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