Monday, September 14, 2009

How Do Little Kids Understand Tragedy?

A friend called last night to talk about her son. A daycare classmate's mother died unexpectedly this week, just days after a cancer diagnosis, and she knew her son would hear about it. What, she wondered, should she tell her own three and a half year old when he asked what that meant?

This is an understandably difficult situation. First of all, talking to children about traumatic events is always hard. Our first inclination is to protect them. We are afraid of scaring them, and we think if we just don't talk about it they won't be afraid. But we're wrong. Children know that something has happened -- in this case the classmate has told him. When we don't talk about it we send a very powerful signal that the topic is really horrible -- so horrible that we can't even talk about it. Children have vivid imaginations, and what they envision in the absence of good information is often much, much worse than what has really occurred.

In this instance, we have the added twist that the children involved are very young. They are old enough to hear the words and ask the question, but they don't really understand the concept of death. The classmate is demonstrating this when he so casually tells his friends that his mother died. He knows she is dead, and probably someone has explained what that means, but he doesn't have the experience or cognitive framework to understand it. Kids at this age do not understand the concept of time very well, and they don't understand what "never" and "forever" mean.

The words we often use to explain death to young children can actually make their understanding harder. When we say, "she went to sleep and will never wake up" the child understands that sleeping is a dangerous thing. When we say, "God wanted her to come be in heaven," they don't think God is very nice. It is quite a trick to come up with a way to explain this that is both comprehensible to young children and not even more frightening than it needs to be.

It happens that my friend's dog died a while back, and they had told her son that he went up to heaven with God. Based on this, I suggested she explain the current situation to him this way:
Billy's mommy got very very very very very very very very very very sick. The doctors tried to make her better but they couldn't, and her body stopped working, so she went up to heaven to be with God.

Note the enormous numbers of "very's." Children, particularly young children, are concrete thinkers. If you tell them that Billy's mommy got sick, then when they or their parents are sick with a cold, they may be afraid they will die. They have no conception that certain types of sick can kill you and others usually don't. By putting lots of "very's" in the explanation, you create a way to talk about this. If they express concern about their cold, you can say,
Yes, I'm sick, but I'm not very very very very very very very very very very sick.

Now your child will know what that means.

I also warned my friend that her son may be totally unaffected by this. He may not make the connection at all that if his classmate's mommy died, his mommy might die too. Children at this age are still very egocentric. Everything in the world has to do with them. Their mommy has absolutely nothing to do with someone else's mommy, because they don't really understand the relationship between their classmate and their classmate's mommy. I told her not to be surprised if her son seemed fine. This afternoon she emailed to say, "He totally didn't get it."

It was also possible, of course, that he wouldn't be fine. He could have processed, on some level, that this is bad and scary. If so, he might have nightmares or trouble sleeping, regress in his potty training, be more cranky or lose his appetite. All of that would be nothing to worry about unless it lasted a long time. In the meantime, he needs his parents to cuddle him and reassure him and validate his feelings. We can all use that sometimes.

As my friend's son gets older, he may revisit this incident in different ways. With each developmental stage, he may, reprocess it based on his new understanding of what death means and what his mommy means to him. More than likely, however, he won't remember this at all -- he's awfully young. His friend may not remember it either, although he, of course, will grow up with the impact of not having his mother. That's another journey altogether.

You can find more tips on talking to children about traumatic events here.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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