HELPING YOUR CHILD COPEDealing with the death of a loved one, friend, or another student can be confusing to children. Below are appropriate ways to discuss death with your children.Discussing death with your child
- Be aware of your own feelings and beliefs about death so you can talk with your child as naturally as possible when the opportunities arise. If you believe in heaven and want to tell your child about it, it is important to emphasize that he or she won’t see the person again on earth.
- Do not confront them with information that they may not understand or want to know, but instead be sensitive to their desire to communicate when they are ready. If they can’t express their feelings in words, it may be helpful to have them draw a picture about their feelings or make something out of playdough. As they draw or make things, use empathy to give their feelings a name: “You’re sad. You miss __________. Tell me about it.”
- Offer them honest explanations when they are obviously upset. The best approach is to use simple and brief explanations in language they can understand. Only offer answers to questions that are asked.
- Avoid confusing explanations and mixed messages that increase anxiety in children, such as:
- “Went to sleep”—this may make them fearful of going to bed or taking naps
- “Went away”—brief separations with other loved ones may begin to worry them
- “Sickness caused the death”—especially young children can’t distinguish between temporary and fatal illnesses
- “Only old people die”—this can lead to distrust when they realize that young people can die too
- Checking to see if a child has understood what has been said is critical. Youngsters sometimes confuse what they hear. Also, children learn through repetition and may need to hear the same question answered over and over again.
- Grief in children is much different than grief in adults. Adults may “live in a heavy fog” for a while, but children tend to bounce in and out of grief, crying one moment and laughing the next. This can be confusing to children. Listen to and accept their feelings.
- Do not put off their questions by telling them they are too young.
- If you do not know the answer to their questions, answers such as “I honestly don’t know the answer to that one” can be more comforting and help them feel better for not knowing everything also.
- Provide security. The death of a classmate may for the first time cause your child to think of his or her own mortality or the mortality of his or her parent. You may reassure your child that you will take care of them and probably won’t die until they are all grown up. Since none of us know when we will die, don’t make any promises to your child that you will always be there for him or her.
- Between the ages of five and nine, most children developmentally are beginning to realize that death is final and that all living things die. They also tend to personify death (for example, they may associate death with a skeleton), and some children have nightmares about death.
- Know that children develop at different rates in their perception of death and have different reactions. For example, a child may appear unconcerned about the death of a grandparent but may react strongly to the death of a pet. No matter how children cope with death, they need sympathetic and nonjudgmental responses from adults.
- Don’t make them go to funerals or visitations unless they express a desire to do so. It may also be a good idea to let them know in advance what will take place at the ceremony ahead of time so there are no surprises and they know what to expect.
- Your child’s student services coordinator or counselor is also available to help your child.
- Many books on death and dying are available for children to help you discuss the situation with your child.
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