This blog post was contributed by Marta Kotarba (Maria Grzegorzewska University).
‘Miss Kasia, why is Kamil in hospital for so long? When will he come back?’ Little Anna asks when her friend who is suffering from cancer does not come to kindergarten for another week.
The teacher talks in general about serious illnesses, leaving … And gives Anna a hug in the hope that she will think about something else, when she suddenly hears:
‘Who invented such diseases? Can I get sick and die one day too?’
Some topics are difficult to talk about with children … – illnesses, accidents, death, violence. Most adults are afraid of taking up these themes with young children. However, as they are an inevitable part of life, each of us, including children, must get used to these issues. To help children become familiar with such topics, it’s worth showing them that you can talk about these difficult subjects. The only question is – how to do it?
Why is it so difficult?
Many adults do not want to talk about issues which they find worrying or annoying. They try to hide their feelings in the hope that passing over certain subjects in silence will be the best solution. But avoiding difficult topics does not mean that they cease to exist. Children are great observers. When adults avoid talking about issues that are worrying to them, children often hesitate to ask questions related to those themes. For a child, avoiding the topics of illness or death may be a message: if mom/dad can’t talk about it, it must be bad/dangerous or: I shouldn’t talk about it, because it makes mom/dad upset/sad.
A child’s fear of the unknown is worse than reality. A child can fantasise and in his/her mind create the worst scenario related to the subject of death. Talking with children about the so-called difficult subjects, we can discover what they know and what they do not know, what fears or worries arise. We have an opportunity to help them by providing information, showing understanding and providing a sense of emotional security. Therefore, it is important that you carefully listen to the child.
Certainly, what we tell children depends on their age and experience. However, the biggest difficulty when talking with a child is that when addressing certain themes we approach our own feelings and beliefs about disease, dying or the condition of the modern world. These issues touch upon existential dilemmas, which are difficult to walk away from indifferently, because they stir our emotions and force everyone to question the meaning of life. There are no simple answers to such questions as: Who are we?, Why are we here?, Why are there diseases?, Why do we die?. Searching for answers involves our social, cultural, religious as well as personal beliefs related to individual experiences, emotions and convictions . It is worth taking a look at how we react to various difficult subjects that arouse emotions and associations in us, and whether we are ready and open to children’s questions in this regard.
Children and stages of understanding death
Long before we realise this, children become aware of death. They see dead birds, insects, or animals lying next to the road, hit by a car. Sometimes they notice information about someone’s death, on television, or they hear about the death of a fairy tale hero. Death is part of everyday life, and children – at a certain level – are aware of it.
A review of more than a hundred scientific studies conducted in the 20th century showed that in children’s understanding of death there are four main elements which also involve the occurrence of specific questions :
- the issue of irreversibility – can you die a little?, can the dead be alive again?;
- the conviction that death has a specific purpose or the conviction that the death has no function – why do we die?, what happens to us after death?;
- the issue of causality – how do we die?, what causes death?;
- the issue of the inevitability of death – will we all die?
Research shows that children’s understanding of death develops with age, going through certain specific stages . However, it is worth emphasising that children who have experienced the death of a family member or a beloved animal seem to understand death in a more real sense than children who have not had such experiences.
The youngest children (up to about 4 years of age) usually perceive death as something reversible, temporary and impersonal. Even during play they may say: and now I’m dead, which is not at all disturbing. It also happens that they believe that death could be a good solution to difficult situations, a “wait it out” method, similar to falling asleep or going on a long journey. You should not be alarmed or overly correct the child’s judgements, unless she/he begins to ask questions. Children of this age rarely inquire about death-related issues, unless they have experienced passing away of a person or animal significant for them. In such situation, you should listen carefully to what the child thinks about the subject and what doubts she/he has, and speak using simple language that a child can understand.
Between the ages of 5 to 9, most children begin to realise that death is final and that all living creatures die. But they do not usually perceive death as an issue that concerns them. They are convinced that they can avoid death in some way, using their own cleverness. At this stage, children also personify death. They can associate death with a skeleton, a witch, a ghost or an angel of death – it appears in their drawings and sometimes in nightmares. From around the age of 9, children begin to fully understand that death is irreversible, that all living creatures die, so they will also die one day. This is the moment when the child starts to reflect on the meaning of life and its purpose.
How to talk with children about difficult issues
Accepting the finiteness of life can be a lifelong process. We find different answers at subsequent stages of life, but it also happens that certain topics always cause uncertainty or fear. If we have our own unresolved fears and questions, we may wonder how to provide answers to children. We should not burden children with our own fears. We shouldn’t make children carry our unfinished business. Although not all of our answers will be comforting, it is worth sharing what we really believe and what we really think. If we have doubts, it is better to say honestly: I don’t know the answer to this question, I often wonder about it myself. It may be more comforting than an explanation about which we are not convinced ourselves. Children usually sense our doubts. A white lie, no matter how well intended, can cause anxiety and distrust in a child.
When talking with children about the meaning of life and death, parents – but above all – teachers, should take into account the fact that different people believe in different things and not everyone answers certain questions in the same way, for example – what happens after death? Some people believe in an afterlife, others don’t. Especially nowadays, in the era of multicultural societies, indicating our acceptance and respecting the beliefs of others, we help children understand the world around them.
When discussing difficult issues with children, it is worth remembering about three basic principles – DO NOT AVOID THE TOPIC – TELL THE TRUTH – SHOW YOUR FEELINGS
- Whenever a child asks questions – answer them. If a child asks or expresses any doubt, she/he is ready to accept the answer. Do not ignore children’s questions, do not say: this is not your problem, you don’t need to deal with it, etc. Creating taboos may lead to the accumulation of numerous fears in children.
- Tell the truth – do not use casual expressions, do not assure the child that only old people die because they will soon discover that it also happens to young people.
- Show your feelings – do not be ashamed of them, it is nothing bad. Also, let children show how they feel.
Children can ask questions about difficult subjects in quite unexpected moments, and some of those questions will also be repeated many times.
Always follow what the child is asking!
Do not say too much at once. These are not topics for one conversation. Questions and doubts will appear again, so there will be time to gradually provide in-depth explanations.
It is important that you become familiar with various existential issues yourself so that you can be a guide and support for the child.
Sources: Slaughter, V. (2005), Young children’s understanding of death. Australian Psychologist, 40: 179–186.  Speece, M. W., Brent, S. B. (1996), The development of children’s understanding of death, [w:] C. A. Corr, D. M. Corr (Eds.), Handbook of children’s death and bereavement (s. 29–50). New York, NY: Springer.  Bonoti F., Leondari A., Mastora A. (2013), Exploring Children’s Understanding of Death: Through Drawings and the Death Concept Questionnaire, Death Studies, 37: 47–60.