Tender topics- Part 1: Discussing death and dying with preschoolers

Children are curious about death. Be honest and encourage questions.

Most children have seen a plant that has curled up and turned brown. Photo credit: Pixabay.
Most children have seen a plant that has curled up and turned brown. Photo credit: Pixabay.

Children become aware of death and dying through their everyday contact with nature and through watching television and movies.  Most children have seen a plant that has curled up and turned brown. They see animals lying by the side of the road or encounter a dead bug on the pavement.  They have heard a story about a princess who died in a fairy tale and are exposed to television shows where people die in nearly every episode.  An evening news show that highlights a tragedy is a regular daily occurrence and most children experience serious illness and the death of a pet or beloved relative before they begin school. 

Many adults are hesitant to discuss death and dying with a preschooler because they are afraid that they will make the child sad.  Others resist discussing death because they don’t know what to say.  Providing clear information, understanding and comfort may be easier than you think.

It is important to consider the developmental stage of the child that you are dealing with.  The National Cancer Institute outlines some stages of development for preschool aged children in their ability to understand death.  The National Institutes of Health in the publication on Talking to Children About Death reminds us that all children will not experience death in a similar fashion.  Children under age three can vary from little or no concern about death to being full of questions.  Michigan State University Extension recommends five simple guidelines for adults when dealing with the topic of death with preschoolers:

  • Keep it simple.  Answer questions with brief, honest explanations.  It is best to keep your discussion of death very basic in the preschool years. Use familiar items and terms that a child can understand; “When dogs die they don’t run around or bark anymore.”  “When a flower dies it won’t grow again.”  If you don’t know the answer to a question, do not be afraid to say so.
  • Be observant. Watch the child and listen carefully to their concerns.  Check in with the child and allow for some time to take it all in.  Check in to see if the child needs more information.  “You seem worried about something.” “You are very quiet this morning.” “Do you want to talk about something?”  Silence from the child is OK as they may be processing what is happening.
  • Be patient.  Preschool children may ask the same questions over and over.  “Why is Grandpa so sad?” “When will our dog come home?”  Children learn through repetition.  You may have to explain many times that a person who has died is not returning.   Young children may ask questions that seem inappropriate; “Can Grandma still eat?”  Keep in mind the child’s age, stage of development and their experiences. Children often confuse death with sleeping. Many preschool children see death as a temporary state based on their experience watching cartoons and television shows.
  • Look at yourself.  It is important to look at your own beliefs and feelings about death so you are prepared to discuss it with a young child. Your own beliefs will change as you age.  Talk about death when you aren’t emotionally involved.  Opportunities appear every time you see a dead flower, tree, bird or bug. Your child will watch your reactions and follow your cues
  • Be honest with your child.  Share your own feelings about loss and grief.  Let them know it is normal to be sad when something that you love dies.  Avoid phrases such as “she went away to a better place” or “She is just resting/sleeping.” Temper the truth with your reassurance.  When talking about a person who has died you may want to simply tell the child that the doctor couldn’t fix what was wrong and that the person’s body quit working. 

Consult a professional if you are concerned about your child’s reaction to a death. The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends using children’s books to assist in discussing the tender topic of death. Your local library can assist you in finding books that are appropriate for the age and stage of the preschooler in your life.  Children expect their parents and caregivers to be an expert on all topics. You won’t have all the answers!  Explore the many resources to help you talk to your child about death and grief.  For more on information caregiving or family issues that affect you, visit the MSU Extension website.

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