How to talk to your child about death & dying

a child talking to her parent

It’s tempting to try and avoid the topic of death with our children as even for us adults death can be overwhelming and difficult to talk about. Many parents think that talking about death might scare or upset their children or they just aren’t clear on how to go about having this kind of sensitive conversation. Maybe you don’t know what your own beliefs are about what happens when someone dies and feel nervous that you’ll say the wrong thing. 

Although as adults we know death is an inevitable part of life, it can still be hard, painful and confusing to talk about. Especially so if this is something you fear yourself. Perhaps your own past experiences have left you feeling very anxious when you think about someone you love dying or the uncertainty around what will happen around that time.

Is it normal for a child to talk about death? 

Children are typically curious about death when they come across it, be it through games, stories, movies, etc. Their understanding of what this means however is very limited and they don’t view death in the same way we do as adults. It’s very normal for children to ask questions about death in their normal day-to-day life as they don’t see it as any different from the other things in life they are curious about and yet to understand.

Young children have a magical view of what happens when someone dies. Up until the age of around 4, they believe that you only die if you’re unlucky or did something wrong. And that even if you die, it’s not necessarily permanent.

Research has shown us that children’s understanding of death develops slowly over time and by around age 6 to 8 most children will understand that death inevitably happens to everyone.

How to respond when your child talks about death

When a child loses someone, it is important to be honest with them, give them the chance to speak about it, ask questions, and talk about the person that has died. If you feel uneasy talking about death and dying, your little one is likely to pick up on this and perhaps conclude that it’s something dangerous or off limits that shouldn’t be spoken about. However, speaking openly about death can actually help them to get their heads around it and feel less worried and anxious as a result.

If your child becomes anxious, it can be tempting to try and reassure them and tell them “not to worry”, that you or those close to them won’t die for a long time. However this approach is more of a sticking plaster. If you have ever struggled with anxiety about anything, you’ll know that reassurance can help you feel better in the short-term but doesn’t help you feel better in the long-term. 

What to do when your child is worried about you dying?

If your child is feeling anxious about what will happen if you, or someone else they love, will die the issue may be that it’s the uncertainty that’s inherent in that which is hard for them to manage. If this is the case, helping them to manage the feelings that come up for them when they’re experiencing that uncertainty can help them with their difficult feelings and will help build their uncertainty tolerance for the future. Learning to tolerate the uncertainty that is inherent in life is something that can help them sail through other potentially challenging situations in later life with more ease.

Helping your child deal with difficult emotions

It is important not to disregard their emotional response, but instead to validate how they are feeling. Encourage them to experience what they are feeling, be curious about their experience and help them to label it. Saying things like:

“I agree, it’s hard not knowing what’s going to happen.”

“that makes you feel anxious doesn’t it.”

can really help your child to accept that their feelings are normal and nothing to be scared of. 

Helping your child express, make sense of and accept their feelings can help them to feel better in the moment and strengthen their emotional resilience in the future. There’s no need to do anything else, other than letting them experience their feelings. And when this happens, you will see that they pass and move on.

Supporting yourself first

If you find that your child talking about death and dying or feeling scared and upset about it is really hard for you it may be that it’s bringing up your own thoughts and feelings or unresolved issues that you still need to work through. Speaking to a friend or family member that you trust or seeking professional support from a counsellor or therapist can help if you need support yourself first before you feel able to support your child.

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