Losing a loved one is tough, especially when you’re just starting to learn about the world around you. It’s also tricky, as a parent, figuring out how to talk to your preschooler about death in a way they can understand. Unfortunately, this is something many parents have to go through at some point.
As hard as it is, there are ways to make it less intense and challenging to explain.
Talk About It Early On
Before you ever experience a death in the family, it’s helpful to teach them the concept of death. Explaining this will better help prepare them for a time when they experience the loss of a loved one. It might be hard for them to understand how permanent death is, so being clear about the fact that the dead can’t come back is essential.
This lesson doesn’t have to be morbid. You can easily teach your preschooler by showing them expired fruit or even just popping a bubble or balloon. Death is a common occurrence in children’s movies as well, so that’s another way to bring it up.
Be Patient With Them
The loss of a loved one is a lot to process. When you’re three years old and are still learning how the world works, your emotions and behaviors can go a little haywire. Because of this, it’s common for preschoolers to regress in development when things like death happen. You may find that they’re having more potty accidents or reverting to baby talk even though they know better.
When this happens, it’s essential to be calm. Your child isn’t doing this to make you mad purposely. They do this because they’re going through a pretty overwhelming situation. It’s best to help guide them through their big emotions. There are a few easy ways to do this:
- Assure them that it isn’t their fault.
- Speak openly about the situation.
- Listen before you talk.
- Don’t hide how you feel.
- Give lots of hugs and snuggles.
Speaking Age Appropriately
Death can be pretty hard for preschoolers to comprehend. For most, they view death as something temporary, and they may not understand why a family member is crying. It’s best to provide your preschooler with simple explanations.
You should be straightforward with your explanations, as well. Children of preschool age are curious by nature, so you need to prepare yourself for any questions they might have. It’s also important not to beat around the bush.
It may seem like a good idea to shelter your preschooler from this tough situation. However, exposing them to what’s going on will better prepare them for the future. You may find that your little one is asking the same questions more than once. Preschoolers learn best through repetition so as hard as it may be, it’s crucial to always answer them.
What Not to Do
Death is a delicate subject, and it needs to be treated as such. Many parents may find that it's difficult to find the right way to have a conversation with a child about death. You might feel that if you are too blunt about it, you will cause your child to experience more distress. On the other hand, if you’re too delicate, your child may leave the conversation more confused than they were beforehand.
Here are some helpful pointers on what not to do:
- Don’t let your emotions get the best of you: The loss of a loved one takes a significant toll on your mental health. During this tough time, it’s essential to keep your emotions in check and remember to be patient with your child.
- Don’t try to sugarcoat the topic: Using “cutesy” nicknames for death will only lead to confusion. For example, saying they’re “sleeping forever” may make the child think that when they go to bed, they won’t wake up either.
- Don’t avoid the subject in day-to-day life: Before you ever deal with death, make sure it’s a concept your children are aware of. Spark up a conversation when you see a dead leaf or when you pass an animal on the side of the road.
- Try not to dismiss misbehavior: If your child is having trouble keeping their emotions in check, they may act out in more severe ways. If this is happening, it’s vital not to ignore it because something worse could happen as a result.
Some families may find it helpful to reach out to a grief counselor or other professional to help work through their emotions. There’s a stigma around the thought of seeing a therapist, but there's nothing wrong with seeking help.
Other Helpful Resources
When dealing with a topic as complicated as death, it can be challenging to find the right words. Luckily, there are other resources out there to help facilitate that discussion with your preschooler. These resources will help ensure you’re approaching the topic with your child in an age-appropriate way.
Surprisingly enough, there are children’s shows out there that tackle this topic and they do so in the gentlest way. Of these programs, perhaps the most well known is the episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, where Daniel’s pet fish dies. This was inspired by the original Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episode where Mister Rogers talks about grief and coping with the loss of his fish.
In the episode, Daniel notices that his pet fish is “sleeping” and won’t wake up. He gets worried and tells his dad what’s going on, and Dad Tiger explains that his fish has died. Throughout the show, Mom and Dad Tiger encourage Daniel to ask the tough questions on his mind to help him feel better.
For all of the preschool parents out there, you know Daniel Tiger is famous for its use of a song in each episode to teach a lesson. The song from this episode could play a significant role in getting your child to understand what’s going on.
Along with TV, some children’s books tackle the subject as well. Reading these stories together can help facilitate conversation, and they’ll help your child engage with you more. A popular choice among parents, caregivers, and professionals is The Invisible String, by Patrice Karst.
In this story, a mother tells her children that every person is connected by a string made of love. She goes on to explain that even though the string is invisible, the love between one person and another is strong. Even when one person dies, the string remains.
I think this is a beautiful way to help preschoolers cope with losing a loved one. It reassures them that their loved one always cared for them and still does even after death.
And of course, reaching out for help from a professional can help you, and your preschooler cope if you’re experiencing more severe grief. They may even have some tools and exercises for you or your child to do to work through how you’re feeling.
As much of a stigma that counselors and therapists have on them, it’s always worth reaching out if you feel overwhelmed.
Talking Through the Tough Stuff
Dealing with death is hard, and it sucks—I won’t sugarcoat it for you. However, it’s more important than ever to make sure your family is there for one another. This reigns especially true for your preschooler, who may not quite understand what’s going on. By using the tools I mentioned above, you’ll find having that tough conversation is a little bit easier.
Just remember, love is patient and kind. Be mindful of how you talk to your preschooler about death. Use the right language, be compassionate, and you’re all set.