Our Tip of the Week: Our cultural taboo against talking about death means that we often don’t know how to talk to our children when a loved one dies. Talking to young children about death is a delicate matter, and some general developmental guidelines can be of great use in deciding how to approach the subject.
How-to Suggestion: Infants and toddlers ages 0-3, while still too young to grasp the concept of death, are still able to pick up on the emotional shifts happening in those around them. If at all possible, keeping them in a familiar environment and adhering to their normal routines will help them feel that their surroundings are not totally destabilized.
Children ages 3-6 are in a stage during which they entertain magical thinking, and thus may not understand that death is permanent situation and cannot be undone. It’s important to be sensitive, but direct and clear that the person who has died is not going to return.
Children ages 6-9 start to understand that death is final. Cause and effect thinking has developed during this stage, and sometimes feelings of guilt may be part of the child’s response. It’s important to assure them that the death is not their fault. Be a good listener and patiently respond to any questions asked of you.
At around the age of 9, children have usually developed an understanding on par with adults regarding the permanence of death. Assure them that death is not a form of punishment, but a natural part of the life cycle.