Helping Parents Talk to Kids about Death and Dying
How much information is too much information for a child?
No one expects you to have a PhD in child development in order to be a parent or a teacher, but sometimes it sure feels like we need one in order to know how to best communicate with a child. Especially where death or grief are concerned. What is okay to tell your kid? What isn’t? Here’s the simplest answer to that: let the child take the lead. A young person will ask right up to the point of what they’re ready to hear. Give them the space – and the silence (as in, make sure you’re listening as well as talking) – to digest what they’re hearing, and to formulate questions in their own words…and their own time.
If a child ever asks a question you are not sure how to answer, remember that “I’m not sure. Is it okay if I think about it and answer later?” is okay, for now. So often, when we are put on the spot, we shut down the question or give an answer that we ultimately regret. This response tells a child that their question is important to you and valid, but buys you time to be thoughtful about how you want to answer. And remember, if you can’t find the words, we at Harbor Lights are always here to help.
When is the right time to tell a child that a family member is dying?
We’ve never heard a child say that they wish they had not been told about an illness or an impending loss; in fact, we often hear that they wish they had been told sooner. Of course, not everyone has the opportunity to address loss before it happens, but we strongly encourage families who do to be honest with their child as soon as they can. Children are much more intuitive than we give them credit for, so chances are they already know something is wrong before we have the opportunity to talk to them about it. As incredibly difficult as the task is, being forthcoming with a poor prognosis alleviates the stress of not knowing what is going to happen, it gives a child meaningful time to say goodbye to their loved one, and it strengthens their trust in the person who has spoken honestly to them. This trust is so important, because it is a key to know how much to tell kids— when a child trusts that you will tell them the truth and that you are open, they will ask you the questions they want to know about. When we try to protect them from the truth but end up concealing it – even for the noblest of reasons – this trust gets lost and children can feel isolated and confused.
Do I really have to use the word death?
Simply— yes. This can often be the hardest part for an adult to do, because the word scares us and makes us uncomfortable. For a young child, the word doesn’t yet have a meaning, and it’s up to us to help them find one they can understand. If we treat ‘death’ like a bad word, or a source of overwhelming stress, that is what it will become for a child. It’s up to us to normalize death so that children are not unduly afraid of it, and so that they feel no shame in talking about it and asking questions.
Additionally, when we avoid using the word ‘death’ we can confuse kids, who cannot readily interchange euphemisms and the word they represent. For example, telling a young child that their grandfather “went to sleep and did not wake up” can be unintentionally terrifying: they’ll wonder if this could happen to them, and perhaps be confused as to whether or not the situation is permanent for grandpa.
We hope this has answered some of your questions, or given you something to think about. If you would like to talk about any of what is written here, or about your own specific situation, you can always reach out to our team to continue the conversation.