Talking about death with young children

Janis Keyser, MA, Early Childhood Education Specialist & Author, shares advice for parents on the best way to properly discuss the topic of death with young children
Advice For Talking With Young Kids About Death
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Talking about death with young children

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In families, occasionally the question of death comes up. A family member may die. A family pet may die. A snail outside the house may get squished by someone's foot. The child is curious about death. There are three things to think about when you talk to your child about death. One is, how old is your child? What is their developmental level? That will influence how they think about death and what kinds of information you can give them. Another thing to think about is, what are your beliefs about death? What do you want to communicate to your child about death? The third thing to think about is, what is your emotional attachment and what is your emotional state in regards to this death? Because you may be having your own feelings about the death that you are talking about. Very young children, children under the age of 5, don't have a strong sense of time. They really can't understand the permanence of death. So, we talk in very concrete terms to them. We might say, "Now our cat can't eat anymore. Our cat is dead. Our cat can't walk anymore. Our cat can't meow anymore or play anymore or see anymore. That what it means to be dead." Those are very concrete things that children can understand. The interesting thing is that often a child won't understand death at a level that is beyond their developmental level. So, they can't fully get forever. They are really sad that the cat is not here anymore, but the can't fully get the impact of death. The other thing to think about is what do you want to teach your child. What's important to you around death? You may have some beliefs that you want to share with your child. If you have feelings also about the death, you can cry in front of your child. You can say, "I'm really sad about it." What's helpful is if you have another place where you can have your full feelings; whether it's a friend, whether it's a therapist, so that you don't have to have your entire, full breakdown in front of your child. Certainly crying and having some expression in front of your child is appropriate, but it may be unnerving for a child to see a parent get very, very sad. Dealing with death is a wonderful opportunity because it gives you a chance to talk about what's important in your family, how you deal with significant events, and to partner with your child in understanding a really big concept.

Janis Keyser, MA, Early Childhood Education Specialist & Author, shares advice for parents on the best way to properly discuss the topic of death with young children

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Janis Keyser, MA

Early Childhood Education Specialist & Author

Janis Keyser currently works as a site director for a child development program in Mountain View, California. She was a full-time faculty member in the Early Childhood Education Department at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California for 30 years, teaching children, teachers and parents and coordinating a state demonstration infant toddler program. She has written a resource book for parents and one for teachers; and is a nationally recognized speaker at parenting, family and child development conferences, and has conducted workshops nationally and internationally for parents and teachers for over 35 years. She enjoys swimming, kayaking, photography, family games and cooking with friends of all ages.

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