How to Talk to Toddlers & Preschoolers about Death & Disaster
What to say when the unthinkable happens
Death of a Pet
Talking about death is tricky, because we’re hardwired to avoid the subject. When a loss occurs in a family, parents may be grieving themselves, yet also have to find the words to explain to their toddler that his dog is gone, or tell a preschooler that her grandma won’t be visiting anymore. And when a disaster occurs that causes a major change in routine, children are sometimes affected the hardest.
While talking about any of these scenarios can be difficult, experts agree that speaking openly and honestly with your child is the best course. (Learn more about the grieving process for kids, here.)
When a beloved pet dies, it can be upsetting for everyone in the family and may be a child’s first exposure to death. While your instinct might be to protect your child from grief by hiding your emotions, don’t be afraid to show your sadness.
“Children will take cues from parents about what is okay in the grieving process, so it is very healthy to grieve in front of your child,” says Terese Vorsheck, director of the Highmark Caring Place, a center for grieving children and families with three locations in Pennsylvania.
What to Say: You should talk honestly with your child about the death of your pet, and have the conversation in a place where your child feels safe, such as at home. Nancy Peterson, a specialist with the Humane Society, says: “Try something like ‘Fluffy won’t be coming back to us, because his heart just didn’t work well anymore. But we all loved him, and he knew that—and we all miss him.’”
While children in the toddler to preschooler age range may not be able to comprehend the permanence of death and may not have the vocabulary skills to express what they’re really feeling, you can encourage expression through art.
What to Do: Peterson suggests creating a scrapbook or collage with your child to commemorate your lost pet—or create a journal together with words and pictures. “You can write some nice things about the pet, and then encourage your child to draw pictures or volunteer some words that you can write down for them,” Peterson says.
Another parental instinct might be to immediately wipe out all reminders of your pet from the house, thinking that the animal’s cage, toys, leash, or food bowl might make your child more upset. But that’s not necessarily so, says Peterson: “If you remove all traces of the animal immediately, a child might think that if something happened to him, that all traces he existed would be removed, too.”
Proceed slowly when removing the pet’s items from the house and consider keeping the pet’s favorite toy, collar, or other special object as a memorial. “Frame a photo of your pet and put that and the collar or other item in a special place—these small gestures will provide some comfort for your child.”
Death of a Family Member
The death of a loved one can be life-altering for everyone in the family—and the impact on the family’s youngest members should be acknowledged. “If they’re old enough to love, they’re old enough to grieve,” says Emilio Parga, director and founder of The Solace Tree, a center for grieving children and adolescents in Reno, Nevada.
Again, toddlers and preschoolers don’t have the cognitive ability to understand the permanence of death, but they can sense that something has changed in their world, and they do feel the impact. Routines are thrown out the window and caregivers may change—disrupting the schedules that help this age group feel secure.
What to Say: “I’m a firm believer that there are always truthful words we can offer, even to a child as young as two to explain what happened,” says Mary Gravina, assistant vice president of counseling services at Hospice Care Network’s Child Bereavement Program in Woodbury, NY. She suggests using age-appropriate, simple language, and being open to questions that are sure to come—days, weeks, or even years later. Parga adds that, again, you should talk to your child in a place that is comfortable and safe for him or her—be it the living room sofa or a play fort.
Parga recommends reassuring your child that even though you are upset, your feelings for her have not changed. An example he offers is: “Mommy’s heart just hurts right now, but she still loves you very much.”
What to Do: Maintaining routines as much as possible can also be a big help during the difficult aftermath. “Do the best you can to stick to the child’s normal schedule,” says Gravina. “Assign one caregiver so they aren’t bouncing around from house to house—give them as much stability as you can manage.”
As for the wake and funeral, you can involve your child in this process if you feel he is able to handle it. If you do bring him, be sure to prepare him for what he might see in language he can easily process and understand. For example, you might tell him that his grandpa will be lying in a box called a casket, and that grandpa’s eyes will be closed.
Another way to communicate with your young child is through reading together—there are books about death targeted to every age group, including two- to four-year-olds. “Books are a great resource to open a discussion with your child,” says Parga, who has authored several books, including Love Never Stops and No Child Should Grieve Alone.
The degree to which a disaster impacts your child’s psychological health will depend on how much the disaster directly affects his routine and schedule. If, for example, the family’s house burned down, a toddler or preschooler would be concerned with and would ask questions about practical things: Where is my nightlight? Where are my toys? These questions provide a chance to address her anxieties about the situation.
What to Say: “Encourage your child to share what he or she understands,” says Dr. Merritt Schreiber, PhD, senior program manager of psychological programs at the Center for Health and Disasters, UCLA School of Public Health. “Address their direct concerns and correct any misunderstandings—be honest and direct and comfort them as much as possible.”
For example, if your child is concerned about where the family will live after the fire, you can say: “Mommy and Daddy are coming up with a plan about where we are going to live right now, and what we can do about returning to our neighborhood.”
What to Do: Dr. Schreiber points out that while talking to and comforting your child is very important, parents also need to get the help they need to cope with the situation.
“Parents need to have their own coping plan, because when parents cope better, the children seem to do better,” says Dr. Schreiber. He says research is emerging on families affected by Hurricane Katrina that shows when parents have difficulty coping, that anxiety is passed to their children .
Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech massacre, 9/11 … the list of world disasters from the past few years is long, and their commemorations mean they resurface as times of despair for children, including those that aren’t directly tied to the event. Should you talk about these events, too?
Not necessarily, says Dr. Schreiber—and what’s more, you should limit their exposure to the disturbing media coverage of these events.
“Research from 9/11 shows that watching TV contributes to ongoing psychological risk, and children in this very young age group may be at a particularly high risk—when images are replayed on TV, the child may actually think each replay is a new event, which can cause them an enormous amount of stress,” says Dr. Schreiber. “I don’t think there is a need to talk about these things with your very young child, unless they are asking questions or expressing confusion.”
Tips for Difficult Talks
Choose the right setting. Be sure to have the conversation with your child in a place where she feels safe and secure. If home’s too chaotic, choose another spot that your child is most comfortable in, whether it’s a park or diner.
Be honest. Experts agree honesty is best, even when your instinct is to protect your child by hiding a difficult truth.
Listen. Find out what your child understands about the situation and what his concerns are. When you understand them, you can address them.
Use simple language. Preschoolers and toddlers have limited verbal and cognitive skills, so be sure to explain in easy-to-understand terms.
Be patient and open. Children this age cannot comprehend the permanence of death—even if you tell them Grandma has died, they may still ask later where she is. Know that this is normal, and do your best to patiently address these questions. Your efforts will result in an emotionally healthier child.
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