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How Children Understand Death

Raquel Anderson, EdD, LMHC, NCC, Behavioral Health Specialist
January 3, 2019 . 2 min read

Children understand and react to death very differently than adults. In many households, the topic of death is not brought up until the loss of someone close to the child occurs — this might be a pet, grandparent, or other relative.

When discussing death with a child, be honest and try to keep it simple. Use terms the child will understand, and allow them to ask any questions they may have. Children tend to understand and process the concept differently depending on their age.

Young children up to two years of age have no real understanding of death and may simply see it as abandonment or separation.

From the ages of 2-6 years old, it is common for children to see death as temporary or view it as some form of punishment.

Between the ages of 6 and 11, children start maturing in their understanding of the finality of death and its causes.

After the age of 12, there is a clear understanding of its finality and inevitability.

Children need opportunities to express their emotions in a safe manner. Some of these feelings can include guilt, fear, sadness, and anger. Any and all of them are normal and appropriate reactions to death and loss. Be open to seeking help from a professional for your child or yourself if you are having a difficult time coping with the loss, which makes it harder to help your child through it.

It is important to give an appropriate explanation of death to all children who have experienced loss or who have questions about it. It might be tempting to lie to the child because it is easier than the hard explanation or emotions that may follow. However, when not given an adequate answer, the child is left to fill in any gaps with their own active imaginations. This can conjure up far worse images and beliefs than the truth itself. Choose your words carefully and allow the child to ask any questions and express themselves accordingly. This will give you an accurate assessment of where they are in their understanding and how they are progressing through their own personal grieving process.

Sources:

  • National Institutes of Health, Medline Plus
  • Discussing Death with Children.
    Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth
  • On Death and Dying.
    Wood, Frances, B
  • (2008) Grief: Helping Young Children Cope.

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