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How To Explain the Death of a Loved One to Your Child

Tips For Every Age Group

As with the Wills and Probate sections, we are not pretending to know all the When a loved one passes, a multitude of emotions arise which can be hard to deal with, even for adults. The same applies to children too, though their lack of emotional experience can make the process of grieving even more frightening for them.

Understanding a child’s level of maturity and how best to support them in the grieving process thus is integral.
From toddlerhood to adolescence and beyond, the loss of a loved one can cause tremendous fear and confusion in a child.
Luckily however, modern psychology has demystified the prospect of helping a child grieve. Of modern discoveries, the most vital to helping your child grieve is how and when a child develops concepts of death for the first time. Depending on how conscious your child is of the concept of death at the time of bereavement, different techniques will be effective in reducing the burden of grief. These techniques will be detailed below.

How to explain death to a 3 year old

In this stage, children do not possess any concept of death. However, in times of bereavement, you are very likely to see changes in mood and behaviour in the infant. This is not due to any perceived loss of a loved one, however; conversely, these changes are empathetic. Infants are keenly tuned to the emotions of their parents or carers, and your stress will affect them in more ways than you may think. At this period of development, it is not necessary to explain the death to the child unless they ask.

During this phase, closeness and routine are integral. While it would be impossible to completely hide your emotions from your infant, you can reduce the burden of their stress by making sure that life remains as stable as possible as the family grieves. Separation anxiety especially is likely to be heightened during this period: research by Dr. John Bowlby found that separation anxiety is primary emotion experienced by infants after loss. Hence, you should not be alarmed if your infant requires more care and attention after bereavement. This is natural; your infant derives most of their contextual understanding of the world from their relationship with their primary caregivers at this stage. Thus, any changes in your behaviour can threaten your infant’s sense of security. Maintaining the same routine to whatever extent possible hence can safeguard your infant from unnecessary fear during their first experience of loss. 

How to explain death to a 5 year old

During this period of development, children typically first begin conceptualising death. However, they will often misunderstand the nature of death, and are likely to ask you many questions. Children at this stage often mischaracterise death as reversible, and their first experience of bereavement will sadly crush this hope. 

Compassion and patience are key to helping your child navigate bereavement at this stage. The irreversible nature of death will pose frightening questions to your child, and they will cope with their loss by asking you many questions. 

Remember not to use euphemisms when answering your child’s questions. Children of this age are likely to take what you say very literally, especially when related to topics of loss and death. Honesty is the best policy here; misappropriating death will only cause more grief and confusion in the long run for your child. 

It is likely that your child’s emotions will be more variable than you may expect during the processing of grief. Children of this age have an underdeveloped emotional attention span, and hence the grieving child will likely exhibit a cyclic pattern of emotions. You may see your child passing from happily playing to crying to shortly return to playing. This is natural; children of this age process emotions very differently to adults.

How to explain death to an 8 year old

At this stage of development, child often understand that death is irreversible. This will cause many fears to understandably arise in your child. Children experiencing loss at this developmental stage will worry about death and the possibility of you or others they love dying. If they ask if you or others will die too, it would be wise to tell them that while everybody passes at some point, that time is not close for anybody close to them. You should explain that death most often happens after a long period of acute illness. This will allow your child to not fixate on the likelihood of death of others they love.

Another issue which may arise after you notify the child of the bereavement pertains to misplaced responsibility. Children of this age are empathetic, but often are unable to understand that they did not cause the death. They may feel guilt, worrying that their negative thoughts about the deceased individual caused them to die. At this age of development, children typically possess a penchant for magical thinking. Reassure your child that nothing they did caused their relative to die, and remind them that you love them. The eradication of unnecessary guilt in your child will allow them to process their grief healthily.

How to explain death to a 10 year old

Children of this age are at a turning-point of development; they want to be treated like an adult, but they also crave the comforts of early childhood. They still just as keenly crave the love and protection of their parents, though they may pretend not to. 

To explain a loss to a child in this age range, you should focus on openness and honesty. Your child will benefit from knowing that you’re still there for them, both as a source of honest wisdom and kindness. Children of this age may develop worries about other loved ones dying during this time. Reassure them that their emotions are valid, and notify your child that death seldom ever comes without a long period of illness first. Answer their questions honestly, without using euphemisms for these will cause further confusion in the long run.

Misplaced responsibility can also be an issue in children of these ages. They may worry that their thoughts or behaviours led to the death. If this does occur, do not chastise or ridicule your child. Dispel these fears, but remember to remind your child that they are not a bad person for feeling what they are feeling.

how to explain death to a teenager

During this developmental period, your teen may attempt to hide their emotional responses from you. Children of these ages are inhibited by a number of social and temporal challenges; as they age, they will increasingly feel that depending on their parents for emotional support denotes weakness. At this age, the teen feels as though they have to grow up quickly and achieve independence as soon as possible.

Hence, when informing your teen of the death, remind them that you are still there for them for emotional support. Tell them that depending on you for support is not a sign of weakness, but instead strength. Reassure them that everybody needs support from those close to them sometimes, and that talking to people doesn’t make them any less ‘adult’. This will open your teen to communication, which is beneficial since teens of this age will still have many questions and concerns you can address. This will allow them to process their grief without developing any deleterious misconceptions.

Complicated Grief and What It Means for Your Child of Any Age

Complicated grief arises in children in any situation in which the processing of the emotional loss is inhibited. One of the most common causes of emotional grief is the loss of a loved one at war- however, any sudden or unexpected loss can cause complications in grief processing. This is true for adults too, but particularly children are negatively impacted by it. This is because children have yet to develop a comprehensive sense of self, which can lead to them illogically placing guilt upon themselves. 

When this is caused by complicated grief, the processing of grief is halted until the irrational feelings of guilt ameliorate. In order to help your child process their grief, you first have to help them move past their feelings of guilt. Once this has been accomplished, your child will be able to process the loss healthily. 

Frequently Asked Questions

At What Age Do Children Develop A Concept Of Death?

Children typically derive a concept of death between the ages of 5-7. However, this can differ depending on the emotional maturity of your child and their personal experiences. If a child loses a loved one earlier on in life, they are likely to develop a concept of death (and particularly its irreversibility) earlier on than other children. 

What Do You Say To A Child Who Is Afraid Of Death?

Death anxiety is a common reaction to bereavement in both adults and children. Listen to your child and make sure to not to dismiss their emotions. Be open with them about death and explain that it seldom ever occurs spontaneously. Reminding your child that death typically follows a period of severe illness may reduce their worry that they or others will pass soon.

Is It Normal For A Child To Worry About Death?

Death anxiety often first develops during the ages of 6-7. This often greatly troubles the child, and they will rely on your wisdom during this period to conceptualise death. This is integral to the child’s conceptualisation of the world around them and is completely normal.