Talking about death can seem uncomfortable when explaining it to a young child. Having conversations about death with a toddler may seem unnecessary since they are sometimes too young to understand. However, making these types of conversations a part of regular discussions with them is essential in a child’s development, especially when they’ve had to deal with death at a young age.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What You Should Say When You Explain a Death to a Toddler
- What You Shouldn’t Say When You Explain a Death to a Toddler
Talking to kids about death can be a bit tricky since a young child may not yet fully understand the concepts of death and dying due to their limited experience and vocabulary. Any explanations may seem confusing to them.
Below are some things you can say and shouldn’t say to a toddler when talking about death.
What You Should Say When You Explain a Death to a Toddler
Knowing how to talk to toddlers about death is about knowing the child, their personalities, and their maturity level. You should start here in terms of gauging what you should say when trying to explain death. Every child will have a different reaction despite similarities in age and maturity. Learning how to approach the subject will require learning a few basic dos and don’ts.
1. Tell the truth
How a child reacts to death will depend on their level of maturity and understanding. The relationship they had with the deceased will also affect how they respond to the news and how they’ll grieve their loss. Whatever their age, begin by telling them the truth.
One way to bring up the topic is to read to them from children's books about death. Let the child know in advance that you want to read a story about death to them so that they’re emotionally prepared for it and not caught off guard.
2. Be prepared for questions and emotions
It’s never easy having these discussions with anyone, let alone a young child. It’s difficult to know how a child will react to the news since they may not know how to communicate their feelings based on their limited vocabulary.
Know that grief reactions manifest in different ways, depending on the child. A child might deflect their emotions by showing humor, withdrawing, or having difficulty sleeping. Keep a lookout for these behavioral changes in them. Have a conversation at their level with them about what they’re feeling and why they think they may be feeling that way. Be prepared for what you’ll hear and to answer any questions they may have.
3. Use simple, clear language
Talking to a toddler about death should become part of your everyday conversations with them. Consider introducing the concept of death before tragedy strikes in their life. It’s helpful for a young child to have a basic understanding of what happens when someone or something dies before it happens.
When discussing death, use simple and straightforward language that they can understand. Don’t be afraid to use the words “dead” or “died.” When explaining these concepts, it’s essential to let the child know that death is permanent and that a person or pet isn’t returning once they die.
4. Break it down into pieces
Keeping things simple for them requires expressing the concept of death, making sense of it, and talking to them about why it happens. Break down the concepts into easy-to-manage pieces so that you don’t overwhelm the child with too much information all at once.
A toddler’s maturity level is not usually developed enough to grasp these concepts fully anyway. It’s crucial to introduce the concept of death in small chunks so they have time to process and digest what you’re saying.
5. Set expectations
Children want to feel safe and protected and know that they'll always be someone there to take care of them. If a child is faced with a parent’s death, tell the child what happens next and what they can expect from that point on. Be careful not to make promises that you won’t die or that you’ll always be there for them.
Instead, be honest and let the child know that death can happen to anyone at any time, and none of us know when we’ll die. You can then explain what’ll happen to them if both of their parents die. Tell them who’ll take care of them, where they’ll live, and what would happen in that case.
6. Learn how to explain the death of a grandparent
A grandparent’s death may be one of the first times a toddler experiences death. Telling a child about the death of a grandparent will likely cause plenty of confusion for them, especially if they’ve never had to deal with death before.
You can make it less scary and confusing by using analogies of death. Try explaining the concept with examples such as the death of a pet or other animal or insect they’ve seen die. Make sure they understand that their grandparent won’t be coming back.
What You Shouldn’t Say When You Explain a Death to a Toddler
Just as important as what you say to a child when explaining death is what you shouldn’t say. Many times you try to protect your child from the harsh realities of death by either hiding it from them or using language that doesn’t fully explain what’s happened.
Knowing what to say and what not to say is not always easy. A child’s mind may not yet be developed enough to understand the concept of death fully. Use your best judgment to gauge how much information you should give to your child based on their age and mental development. The following may help you consider what not to say to a child when talking about death.
7. Keep from giving false hope
Telling a toddler that their loved one has “gone away” without explaining to them that the person has died will give them hope that they’ll come back. A toddler won’t understand the use of euphemisms and is more likely to take your words at face value.
The way they process things in their head is logical for a toddler but not necessarily for an adult. A young child may take the words that their loved one or pet has gone away and will wait for them to return soon. They may not express to you that this is what they’re doing. As time passes, they may start asking why their loved one or beloved pet hasn’t come back yet.
8. Never assign blame
Toddlers have minimal critical thinking skills at such a young age. They think in terms that everything revolves around them. They don’t understand how things can happen outside of their little world or without it somehow being their fault.
When saying goodbye to a pet, for example, it’s important not to assign blame to a toddler. Never say things like, “you were supposed to be watching the dog, so it didn’t run across the street and get hit by a car.” Assigning blame to a child may have a lasting psychological and emotional impact.
9. Don’t discourage questions
Some children are curious about the things around them and like to ask questions. Likely they’ll have lots of questions and ask the same ones over and over. They process things by questioning everything. They keep asking until they’re satisfied with the answers they receive.
Try showing patience when this happens and understand that this is how a child processes information. Discouraging them from asking questions may cause them to withdraw. Prepare instead to answer their questions as many times as it takes for them to get what’s happened. Have responses ready so that you aren’t caught off guard. It’s also okay to tell them you don’t have the answers whenever you don’t.
10. Don’t talk down to a child
Have patience with children when talking to them about death. Never tell a child to leave you alone without explaining to them why you need some time to yourself. They may take this as a personal rejection and may cause them to feel hurt and resentful.
When explaining things to a child, be honest and straightforward. Explain to them what’s going on and how you’re feeling. Encourage them to talk about what they're going through and listen to what they’re saying.
11. Big kids don’t cry
Telling a child that a big kid doesn’t cry sets them up for emotional damage later on in life. Crying is a natural part of the grieving process and is expected after suffering a loss. The expression of that emotion is normal and healthy and shouldn’t be discouraged.
A child who hides their emotions from you may find other unhealthy ways of expressing their grief. Encourage them to express their feelings and to talk to you about what they’re going through. Let them know it’s okay to cry and feel sad over the death of a person or pet they love.
12. Don’t hide your grief
Children learn from the behavior of adults around them. When a child sees you grieving, explain to them why you feel the way you do, and be honest about how death has affected you.
If you’re sad and feel like crying, don’t hide those emotions from your child. There’s nothing wrong with expressing your feelings.
Talking About Death With Toddlers
Children don’t process death and the emotions associated with grief in the same way as adults do. They do, however, learn their behaviors from those adults around them. They mirror or pattern their behavior by what they see around them. Keep mindful of what you’re silently teaching a young child by paying close attention to not only what you say to them but how you react to death and loss.
If you're looking for more on explaining hard concepts to kids, read our guides on children's books about death and children's books about cancer.