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Helping Young Children Understand Death

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

A true story:

I had two black dogs, Labrador Retrievers. The oldest of the two, Bonnie, died after 14 good years of life. My three year old grandson, a regular visitor to our house, noticed that Bonnie was not there. As he said, “There were two black dogs. Where is Bonnie?” We explained that Bonnie was very old and sick and she died. We both his parents and grandparents congratulated ourselves that his question was answered and that we handled it well. However, over the following weeks, he continued to ask the same question. We were baffled. How do you explain death to a three year old?

This is a common scenario made even worse when someone close to the child has died. How do you explain that grandma or grandpa or uncle Max or anyone else has died and is not coming back?

What is said to a child depends a lot on their age and maturity. One does not tell a teenager what is told to a pre-schooler. In fact, a teenager can and even should attend a funeral of a loved one or be present if a loved pet has to be put down at the veterinarians office. This would be too much for a someone as young as a pre-schooler.

Young children are extremely concrete in their thinking and ability to understand what they are being told. For example, if a very young child such as a three or four year old is told that grandma fell asleep and is in heaven, he might become frightened about going to sleep. If grandma fell asleep than he can fall asleep. In the same way telling a child of this age that we “lost grandma” can be a mistake because they think it means that the lost person can come back or the getting lost is very dangerous.

There is no perfect way for parents to handle the issue of death with young kids. However, when they ask questions it’s important that the answers provided must be simple and that parents realize that their understanding will be limited. For example, telling the child about heaven and God is above and beyond what kids can grasp. They are too young to grasp more sophisticated ways of thinking. It’s probably best to explain that when people get very old, their bodies wear out and do not work anymore. My grandson wanted to know when Bonnie was coming back and he was told that she will not be back. His question and the answer went no further than that.

This was the issue that was planned for today’s blog. Ironically, the terrible shooting took place in Colorado just prior to the writing of this blog. Suddenly, death and children became more even more relevant than before. One issue of great concern to everyone was what to tell kids about this awful thing?

Here, too, there is no easy answer. Certainly, it is best to keep pre-schoolers from the television news because it is never good for them to watch any violent TV or movies. In addition, the greatest impact that these kinds of stories can have on all kids is not for their own safety but the fear of losing their parents.

If a pre-schooler asks about the Colorado disaster a similar answer can be given that, when there is an accident or disaster the body can stop working.

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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