How to explain death to a child

How to explain death to a child

Understanding how to explain death to a child doesn't have to be difficult if you know what to say

Explaining death to a child is never easy. Letting them know that someone has passed on and won’t be coming back can be a stretch of the mind for some children to accept. But it doesn’t have to be a puzzle if you know what to do and say. That’s what today’s post is about, so continue reading to learn how to explain death to a child.

A short article by author Mary Ann Barton on outlines some great “Do’s and Don’ts” of how to explain death to a child.

It is based on an incident where a gymboree instructor for a class of young children was sadly killed in a car accident. The aftermath of how to break news to her class sparked some debate in the local community. Read on for a sample of the article:

How to explain death to a child

What to Say and Do

  • Keep routines as normal as possible.
  • Say the deceased person’s name.
  • Talk about the person who died. Keep memories alive by looking at photos, recognizing holidays and anniversaries, and commemorating the person.
  • Provide the child with opportunities to express feelings. These feelings may include guilt, anger, sadness, confusion, or anxiety. Listen and give your support to the idea that it is acceptable to express emotions.
  • Be patient and adjust your behaviors to fit the child’s needs.
  • If a child becomes aggressive, try to channel his behaviors so that he understands what behaviors are acceptable, what behavioral limits are, and that he is cared for and safe.
  • Share your feelings with the child. If you cry, explain your sadness to the child.
  • Model appropriate grief behavior. Express your own emotions in a healthy way.

What Not to Say and Do

  • Avoid euphemisms such as passed away, gone on a journey, and asleep. Children may take these terms literally. Be honest.
  • Do not say, “God loved your mother so much that God sent her to heaven.” A child may feel that he, too, may die if he is good.
  • Do not say, “It was God’s will.” Regardless of what you as an adult believe about spirituality and death, such a statement may negatively shape a child’s view of God and spirituality.
  • Do not say, “It was best your mother died because she is no longer suffering.” Perhaps a child would rather have a suffering mother than none at all.
  • Do not say, “You’re the man of the house now.” The child is still a child, and should not be saddled with adult responsibilities. Also, the child cannot take the place of someone who has died.
  • Do not say, “You must be brave.” Children do not have to be brave. They should be allowed to express emotions, and to know that such expression is acceptable. Do not say, “You’re doing so well” (if the child is not expressing emotion). Saying this may tell a child expression of emotions is not acceptable.
  • Do not say, “You should be better by now.” There is no timetable for grief.
  • If a child’s behavior becomes regressive, do not criticize the child. Regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting, and thumb-sucking are common after death.

There will always be people who think that covering up the death of a person close to the child with an excuse is the “easy way” to break it to them, but this isn’t always the best way. Be honest with your child and let them know exactly what has happened to the person and whey the child will never see them again. I know this sounds harsh, but it is true.

Death is a part of life and letting your child know that is important for their development. Take note of what to say and what NOT to say – don’t put undue pressure or responsibility on children. Let them know what has happened so that they can express themselves naturally, as all human beings do. Hopefully these tips have helped you understand how to explain death to a child.

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