Talking to Kids and Teens About Death
It can be tempting to want to shield kids from things that are confusing or scary, but that can lead to more confusion and harm than good.
Death is a natural part of life that kids need to learn about and understand, and talking about it directly and honestly can help kids become more resilient (better able to handle life’s ups and downs). Different cultures and religions respond to, and deal with, death in different ways. Regardless of your personal views and beliefs, there are some things you can do to set the stage and talk to your child about death. Read on to learn tips for having this important conversation with your child.
How to clearly explain death to kids
Death is not the easiest topic for kids to understand, and it can be even more confusing, depending on what the child is hearing from everyone around them.
To help your child better understand:
- Tell them only what they need to know when you first start the conversation.
- Be honest. If your child doesn’t think you are being honest, they may fill in the gaps either with their imagination, or from someone (or somewhere) else.
- Use clear and concrete language. It’s normal to want to avoid saying the words “death,” “died” or “dying” to a child. However, that type of clear language is easier for a child to understand. Saying “passed away,” “went to their final resting place” or “gone” can be really confusing—especially for young children who are not yet able to understand when something is permanent. Saying someone “went to sleep forever” may not only lead to confusion, but it could also make a child fearful of going to sleep themselves.
- Provide a simple explanation. To help kids understand that death is permanent, explain it in simple terms. For example: “When someone dies, their heart stops beating, they stop breathing and their body stops working.”
If possible, it can also be helpful to have conversations like this one in a safe, private, calm and quiet place with limited distractions. That way, your child may feel more comfortable expressing any and all feelings and asking questions.
How a child’s age may affect their understanding
Once you share the news of a death with a child, it’s important to find out what they know, or what’s on their mind, and allow them to ask questions. Next, you’ll want to follow their lead in a way that is developmentally appropriate. (For example, you would not say the same thing to a toddler that you would to a teen.) Here are some things to keep in mind, based on your child’s age and development:
- May not understand that death is permanent and that the person (or animal) who died is never coming back.
- May ask the same questions over and over, looking for new explanations to help them understand what happened and why.
- May come up with inaccurate conclusions, such as thinking they did something to cause the death—through their thoughts, words or actions. This is called magical thinking.
Older kids and teens:
- Are more likely to understand that death is permanent and something that happens to everyone eventually.
- May start to have more complex questions or worry about other loved ones dying.
- May feel hesitant to share their feelings with parents or caregivers, not wanting to overwhelm anyone. If that’s the case, they can benefit from talking to, and getting support from, other caring adults.
Letting your child lead the conversation
Regardless of the child’s age:
- Allow them to ask questions and actively listen to what information they already have.
- Try to limit what you share, based on what the child is asking. Sharing too much can be overwhelming for some children (especially younger kids).
- Never force a child to talk. When a child first hears the news, they may not know what questions to ask, or even be interested in talking at all. That’s OK. Avoid pressuring them and instead, let the child know you’re available when they need you.
Letting your child express what they feel
Every child reacts differently to grief. It’s normal for:
- Some kids to initially experience sadness or anger while others don’t seem to react at all.
- Feelings to change drastically from day to day or even moment to moment.
- Some kids do not want to talk about it at first.
It is important to validate a child’s feelings. Let your child know their feelings are normal and OK (even if you don’t feel the same), and give them opportunities to express what they’re feeling.
Here are some healthy ways for kids to express themselves:
- Being creative (coloring, painting, drawing, performing, etc.)
- Listening to music, singing or dancing
- Talking to someone they trust
- Journaling or writing
Why you should acknowledge your own feelings
Kids naturally look to adults to get a sense of how they should think, feel or react.
- If your child sees you trying to avoid, hide or minimize your feelings, they may think they should be doing the same.
- If your child sees you acknowledging and expressing your feelings, you are teaching them that it’s normal and healthy to have and express emotions.
Life is full of ups and downs. Instead of avoiding feelings altogether, you can use this as an opportunity to teach your child that we all have feelings, and it’s OK to express them. You can help your child make the connection between feelings and behavior by saying, “I’m crying because I’m sad I won’t get to see Grandma again.” This shows your child how to express their own feelings now and in the future.
If you feel overwhelmed with emotion at any point during the conversation, it’s OK to take a break or let another caregiver or trusted adult step in.
Should your child attend the funeral or service?
Whether or not your child attends a funeral, celebration of life or other rituals related to death, is up to you and your child. Whenever possible, let your child decide how much they want to participate. While it’s important for your child to have a chance to say goodbye, how they choose to do that can vary.
If your child does want to participate in the events or gatherings, help prepare them ahead of time. Allow them to ask questions. Let them know what will happen, when it will happen and what to expect.
If your child chooses not to participate, you may want to offer additional ways to say goodbye (e.g., writing a letter, drawing pictures, etc.).
Having ongoing conversations with your child
Death is confusing, and it can be overwhelming for anyone and everyone. This is not a one-time conversation. As painful or difficult as it may be for you, it’s important to allow your child to talk about the death or who they lost as much or as little as they want. As your child grows, they may have new questions and concerns.
- To be patient with yourself and your child.
- If you don’t have all the answers (no one does!).
- To say you’re not sure and that you need to think about it and get back to them (just be sure to follow through).
- To wait until you or your child are ready to do or talk about something.
- To talk to a licensed mental health professional.