How to Help a Child Who Is Worrying About Death

Mixed race mommy comforting upset little cute girl.
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Fear of death is common among children. In fact, most kids will experience fearful thoughts about death at some point in their lives. They may have a fear of dying themselves, or they may worry that their parents will die. They may even have fears about the family pet dying.

As the parent or caregiver, the key is that you approach the situation with understanding, honesty, and compassion. While you don't want to go into any gory details, it's important to answer your child's questions and acknowledge that everyone dies at some point.

Most of the time, kids will eventually stop thinking and worrying about death. In the meantime, there are some practical things you can do to help them cope with and overcome their fear.

Listen to Your Child

Though it can be tempting to ignore the topic in the hopes that it will go away, it's important to talk to your child about their fears surrounding death. Listen to what your child has to say without minimizing their feelings or telling them that they don't need to worry about death. Sometimes kids just need to feel heard and understood before they can process their thoughts and feelings.

Be prepared and willing to have this conversation more than once. While some kids may be able to have one conversation and move on, other children will need a little bit more reassurance.

While you should be open to follow-up conversations, it's important to ensure these conversations are productive and reassuring rather than repetitive and anxiety-ridden.

Refocus their attention after a brief conversation to something in the here and now. For instance, after offering reassurance and answering their questions, suggest that you play a game, go for a walk, or read a book together. The key is to listen to your child but to eventually redirect their thoughts—especially if the fear is intense or takes on the qualities of an obsession.

Choose Your Words Carefully

Most healthy people have some degree of concern over death. In fact, U.S. epidemiological surveys suggest that as much as 10% to 15% of the population worry about death or have what is sometimes called death anxiety. While this phenomenon often occurs in older adults, it's not uncommon for children to worry about death especially if they are already dealing with the loss of a loved one, anxiety, or a parent's illness.

For this reason, it's very important that your conversations with your kids about death include open and honest language rather than nice euphemisms or vague terms.

While the finality of death is hard to discuss, it's important to be honest about the reality of death and to use words like "death" and "die."

While "nice" words may feel easier and more kid-friendly, they can actually be the opposite. For instance, saying someone who has died is "sleeping" is confusing and implies that the person will eventually wake up. What's more, it may cause some kids to fear going to sleep as well.

Language like "Grandma is no longer with us" or "We lost Grandpa" is also unhelpful and unclear. To a child, these statements could be misconstrued to mean that death is temporary, reversible, or that the person is somehow missing or lost rather than dead. If they need a little more explanation behind death and dying, you can offer a general explanation, like "Their body is no longer working."

It also helps to remind kids that not everyone who gets sick will die, and that in fact, plenty of people fall ill and recover. Reminding them of this fact can put some of their fears to rest.

Put Your Fears Aside

Most bereavement experts emphasize the importance of talking to kids about death from an early age in an honest and informative way and suggest that parents portray death as a natural part of the life cycle even before a death occurs. Despite this, they note that many parents resist discussing death until a loved one or pet dies.

In fact, one survey of parents with children ages 4 to 6 years old were more reluctant to discuss death with their kids when compared to conversations about sex, aging, and illnesses.

What's more, researchers are concerned that parents often use confusing language in an effort to minimize the impact of death, which is more detrimental than helpful.

If you feel uncomfortable talking about death, or if you worry that your personal fears and anxieties will come through to your children, it may help to focus your conversations initially on biology. In fact, research has shown that giving kids biological information about the cycle of life and how the body works may have a positive impact on their understanding of death.

Keep in mind that your kids probably see dead bugs or even dead animals from time to time. A child's imagination might create scenarios that are scarier than the truth, so it can be helpful to point out that when something dies, it no longer functions or moves around. Don't hesitate to be specific: You can explain that when something dies it no longer eats, sleeps, plays, or does what it could before. 

Keep Discussions Age-Appropriate

When talking about death with your children, it's important to keep their age in mind. For instance, the conversation you have with your preschooler should be drastically different than the conversation you have with a teenager. For this reason, it's important to understand what kids can and can't understand about death depending on their age.

For instance, young children will have a hard time recognizing the fact that death is final, especially because the books and television programs they are exposed to often have characters that are suddenly alive again. Even if they are not exposed to materials like this, it's still extremely normal for very young children to think that a person who has died is going to come back at some point.

As kids get older, usually between ages 5 and 10, they start to understand the fact that death is final. They realize that the person who has died is not coming back. They also may start to associate certain images with death like skeletons or coffins, and may even have nightmares about these things. Most likely, this is the age when many of the questions over death will begin.

Make sure you make every effort to answer their questions, even ones that seem obvious to you.

For instance, your child may understand that Grandpa died, but they may not know why Grandma is crying. If they ask, explain that "Grandma is crying because she is sad that Grandpa died."

From about age 9 or 10 through adolescence, children start to recognize that death is irreversible and that they too will die someday. This concept may cause some kids an intense amount of fear. While it's important to talk to them about the fact that everyone dies, it's also perfectly acceptable to remind them that they will likely live a long time before dying.

Discuss Your Spiritual Beliefs

If you believe in God or the afterlife, sharing these beliefs with your kids can provide some comfort as well as help them understand how you process a person's death. In fact, many parents prefer to combine biological facts with their spiritual beliefs when discussing death in order to give their kids a more holistic view of death and dying.

If, on the other hand, you aren't sure what you believe, or you want to encourage your kids to come to their own conclusions, you can simply explain that people have a lot of different beliefs about what happens to people once they die. You can provide specific examples from your circle of family members and friends to share these different beliefs with your kids.

For instance, you might explain that Uncle George believes people go to heaven when they die, but that you believe something different and that's OK. Sharing information in this way may make your kids more open and accepting of different viewpoints.

As your kids get older, they will learn to accept the fact that not everyone has the same beliefs about what happens to someone when they die.

Know When to Get Help

Kids who worry about death are often emotionally sensitive and may have a vivid imagination and a high-level of reasoning. But, they often lack world experience and understanding. So it may not be all that surprising if they become preoccupied with death. When this is the case, it may take them longer to get over their fear, or they may require more information and more support.

If you feel like your child's fears impact their day-to-day life, you may want to talk to your child's doctor about your concerns.

There may be other issues like anxiety at play causing your child to think and worry incessantly about death. With proper treatment, your child can move beyond these fears and focus on everyday life instead of dwelling on what-ifs.

A Word From Verywell

Although discussing death and dying is never easy, your kids will benefit from you taking the time to validate their feelings and understand where they are coming from. Work hard to make your conversations about death honest but not overly dark and gloomy.

By learning to discuss death in a healthy, matter-of-fact way, your kids will learn to accept death as an inevitable part of life without worrying about it every day. Remember: Kids take their cues from their parents. So, if you also have anxiety or a fear of dying, your kids are likely to develop these same concerns. Be sure you also develop a healthy understanding of death. When you do, you will all benefit.

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