Recently, I’ve encountered a lot of social media posts of parents asking for advice on talking about death with young children (toddler/preschool age). Many of the situations do not involve a family member or someone close to the child dying, but instead is just a natural curiosity of children as they grow and develop.
Death is a natural part of life and can be seen everywhere. Plants and trees die, bugs die, and animals die etc. How many times have you driven down the road and seen a dead animal on the side of the road? It’s impossible to avoid because it’s part of life. So why do adults shy away from talking about death with children? I think there are several reasons, which we won’t go in depth with but I find the majority of parents I work with are uncomfortable with the subject because they don’t know HOW to talk about it. Another big reason is fear that they will traumatize their children or cause distress.
This post will briefly discuss talking points to consider when speaking with young children about death in the general sense, along with resources. When I say young children I mean toddlers/preschoolers.
Tips for talking with young children:
Young children, (ages 2 - 5/6 ) see death as temporary and reversible. Explain in simple terms: when someone/something dies they do not breathe, talk, eat, think or feel. Dead flowers do not grow or bloom.
Use nature as examples! Nature is filled with living and dying things that can be used to explain this difficult topic.
Death should not be explained as sleep. Avoid using phrases such as “put to sleep” (especially when talking about animals etc), or grandma’s sleeping forever. This can be confusing to the child and cause fear around sleep.
Some great beginning books to discuss this are:
Lifetimes: A beautiful way to explain death to children by Bryan Mellonie
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
Why do things die? By Katie Daynes (Usborne book)
If you need help supporting your child around conversations about death and dying, please reach out to Kids Can Cope at www.kidscancope.com or firstname.lastname@example.org