We all grew up watching the classic Disney films and love sharing them with our children. Many of us are even happy to have the kids as an excuse to see the newer films like Toy Story. However, it may not be obvious to you that many of these touching animated classics, and other programs or books in our kids’ lives, include the theme of death or loss. Our children spend hours watching these films and yet, we are still so surprised when our 4 year-old comes to us asking about death.
A fascination with death or dying is a common phase for children. Acting out a scene with their dolls or constantly talking about a big issue like death and heaven is their way of working through a concept that they have been exposed to many times. They don’t have to experience death through the loss of a relative or a pet to have questions about it. It’s everywhere.
A child’s understanding of death
When your young child comes to you seemingly obsessed with death or dying and asking questions like “when are you going to die” or “what happens when we die”, don’t go in to convulsions or dismiss this important conversation as morbid and unnecessary. This talk is just as important as the sex talk you will have years later, and possibly just as frightening for you. Your child is trying to understand this concept and is looking to you for answers and reassurance.
A child’s understanding of the concept of death happens in stages and every child develops differently. According to the Child Development Institute, by age 4 a child hears the word death but doesn’t really understand what it means. She may hear the words “heaven” or “sleep” from adults but still only sees it as a temporary condition, like a cartoon character being squashed by a falling piano and then walking away. From ages 5 through 9, a child is exposed even more to the concept of dying and begins to realize that all things die, like flowers and bugs. Around the age of 10, she will begin to know that death is permanent and that we will all die one day.
How do you react to your child’s questions about death
These are huge concepts for even some adults to wrap their heads around. You need to be prepared. Do you have a clear understanding of death? What are your beliefs? Are there cultural or religious elements that you want to pass on to your children?
The Child Development Institute recommends keeping it simple and talking to children in a language that they understand. For the younger ones it may be as simple as biology: we stop breathing, eating, walking, etc. When the child is older, she may be able to understand concepts like an afterlife, if that is what you believe, or more in depth discussions about emotions. Answer only what questions are asked. Don’t volunteer information. Remember to listen and take your cues from her.
You want these inquiring minds to keep asking questions about all types of amazing things they see in the world. Giving too much information too soon or telling them that they don’t need to worry about such things, could be frustrating and discouraging for them.
Consider calling your pediatrician if the conversation turns to talk of her own death or hurting others. A constructive curiosity is one thing, but prolonged sadness or trouble in school or daycare could mean something more serious.
In general, don’t be afraid. Your child will come to you with questions on all sorts of topics throughout life. Talking about death is just one of those phases children inevitably go through in order to understand a word or concept they are exposed to all of the time.