How to Calm a Child's Fear of Death and Dying
Death and dying are concepts that adults often struggle to discuss. We aren’t always comfortable with our own mortality and may even fear it, so how can we talk to our children about it in a realistic yet comforting way?
As with most “big topics” - including where babies come from and why war exists - death education should be frank and honest (Longbottom & Slaughter, 2018). Children aged four to eight who have a more mature understanding of death are less fearful of it when age and general anxiety are controlled (Slaughter & Griffiths, 2007).
“It’s not uncommon for my young clients at Quirky Kid to talk to me about their fear of death or dying,” says Registered Psychologist Amber Burden-Hill. “Their fear is usually about a parent dying, but sometimes it’s about themselves.”
Amber says she sees a fear of death and dying in two age groups. "The first is children aged four to eight who are starting to understand the finality of death and asking their parents a lot of questions about it,” she explains. “They may have seen death on TV or lost a grandparent and it’s on their minds. The second group is older children who have existential worries - such as ‘What’s the point of it all?’ - or who show signs of phobic or obsessive traits around death and dying. That’s when we need to do some intervention to better understand the issues.”
7 tips for talking to children about death and soothing their fears
The more children understand about death and dying, the less they’re likely to fear it. But what words should you use and how much detail should you go into? Amber has seven tips.
1. Listen and talk openly about death
“Listen when your child asks questions about death and dying,” says Amber. “By listening, you’re communicating that they’re not alone which can relieve the burden of any fears they might have. Talking about it doesn’t mean you have all the answers, but it serves to validate and normalise their feelings. Sometimes children need to feel heard and understood before they can process their thoughts and emotions.”
Amber also encourages parents to revisit the topic regularly. “Some children will need more reassurance than others, so parents should be willing to have the conversation more than once,” she explains.
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2. Use the correct words
Parents should avoid using euphemisms such as “passed on”, “gone to heaven” or “asleep” when talking about death. “It’s important to use words like ‘death’, ‘dead’ and ‘dying’ rather than euphemisms,” explains Amber. “These sayings may seem more child-friendly, but they could confuse your child or even misinform them that death is temporary or reversible.”
If you feel uncomfortable discussing death, it can help to talk about it in biological terms. “Research has shown (Lee et al., 2008) that sharing information about the cycle of life and how the body works can have a positive impact on children’s understanding of death,” says Amber. “If you see a dead bug or animal, it’s important to explain it in a biological way or your child’s imagination might create scenarios that are actually scarier than the truth. You can say that when something dies, its heart stops beating and its body stops working. Focusing on the functionality of death can help if you’re feeling anxious about the conversation.”
3. Use age-appropriate terms
While it’s important to expose children to the concept of death from an early age, it should be done in age-appropriate terms. “If you’re talking to a young person about death and dying, it will be drastically different than talking to a teenager about it,” says Amber. “Younger children might struggle to understand that death is final, especially when TV shows have characters bouncing back after hurting themselves. But as they get older, they start to realise the finality of death and that’s when anxiety can start to creep in. They might get scared of zombies, ghosts and all kinds of things associated with death.”
When they reach late childhood and adolescence, children may start to worry about what will happen to their parents and grandparents. “Continue to have regular conversations with them and address their concerns,” says Amber. How? We’re glad you asked...
4. Be realistically reassuring
“When children ask, ‘When are you going to die?’, ‘What will I do when you die?’ and other existential worries, it’s natural for parents to want to reassure them by saying, ‘Don’t be silly, I’m going to be here until I’m really old’,” says Amber. “While we do that with the best intentions, it could confuse children because they’ve likely seen parents die on TV, so they have that understanding. If your child brings up specific worries such as dying of illness, address their concerns by explaining, ‘That’s why, as a family, we eat well and exercise. We do all that to stay fit and help our bodies keep going.’”
Amber explains that this “realistically reassuring” approach is the best way to address children’s worries about death. “Instead of denying what we see as an irrational fear, we offer support and validate that it’s OK to feel anxious about losing someone you love,” she explains.
5. Address spiritual beliefs in combination with biological facts
People whose faith is an important part of their lives often wonder when it’s appropriate to share it with their children. “If you have religious beliefs or a particular perspective on the afterlife, sharing them with your children can provide some comfort and allow them to understand different perspectives on death and dying,” says Amber.
However, Amber recommends combining biological facts with religious and spiritual beliefs to give children a holistic view. “That way, you’ll encourage them to come to their own conclusions while sharing your beliefs and exploring others’,” Amber explains. “You won’t give them any mixed signals and you’ll help them be more open and accepting of other people’s ways of thinking.”
6. Consider getting a pet
Having small pets can allow younger children to be exposed to death without having an overwhelming emotional response. “A pet can be really helpful in helping guide children’s understanding of death because it teaches them that death is a part of life,” says Amber.
“You can start by talking about death when your child finds a dead ladybird and then consider getting a goldfish, or maybe even a guinea pig,” she explains. “It’s a form of graded exposure where you start small and build up so they can one day cope with the death of the family dog or a family member.”
7. Recommended children’s books
“There are several wonderful books out there to help families discuss death and dying,” says Amber. “The more you read them, the more everyone will become comfortable with the topic.”
Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between teaches children that there is a beginning and ending to everything that is alive, but there’s a lifetime in between. The Tenth Good Thing About Barney is a beautiful 1971 classic about a family coming to terms with the loss of their cat while The Invisible Leash teaches children that an invisible leash connects their heart to their pet’s heart forever - even when they’re no longer alive.
Death and dying aren’t easy topics to discuss, so we need to start by addressing our own fears and using an honest and factual approach with our children. The truth - in age-appropriate terms - will set us free.
Need help? We’re here for you
The Quirky Kid Clinic is a unique place for children and adolescents aged 2 to 18 years. We work from the child’s perspective to help them find their own solutions.
If you’re worried your child’s fear of death is becoming phobic or obsessive or they’re expressing suicidal ideation, you should seek professional help. You can book a session with one of our experienced child psychologists or contact us for more information.
If you’re concerned for your child’s welfare, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. If their life is in danger, call 000 immediately.
View article references
- Joo, O.L., Joohi, L., & Sung, S.M. (2009). Exploring children's understanding of death concepts. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 29(2), 251-264. https://doi.org/10.1080/02188790902859020
- Longbottom, S., & Slaughter, V. (2018). Sources of children's knowledge about death and dying. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 373(1754), 20170267. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0267
- Slaughter, V., & Griffiths, M. (2007). Death Understanding and Fear of Death in Young Children. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 12(4), 525–535. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359104507080980