Teresa Olin and Amanda Wilcox-Herzog
Death is a natural part of life but many adults—parents, teachers, caregivers, relatives—are nervous about discussing this taboo topic with very young children for fear of saying the wrong thing, their own lack of comfort related to the topic, or because children “are too young to understand.” In reality, children are curious about life and death, and make reference to and notice death in people, plants, and animals. When considering how young children conceptualize an event or occurrence, it is always important to evaluate what children are capable of developmentally. Each death is different, with some deaths being more traumatic than others, but this article explores what children under 3 years old understand about life and death, and the adult’s role in having honest and simple conversations about the topic.
“It dead?” was the question many children in the toddler room asked when they discovered the classroom’s pet fish had died. Adults in this situation might be inclined to replace the fish before children see it, ignore the question, or pretend everything is okay; “The fish is just sleeping.” These habits of “protecting” children from death, while common, are unfortunate, as many children, by 5 or 6 years old, have either experienced the death of someone they know or been exposed to death through the media (Galende, 2015; Wong, 2010). This is the story of how one toddler teacher, Teresa, worked to increase her understanding of what young children (birth to 5 years old) know about death and to define her role in the learning process.
Children’s Developmental Capabilities
Teresa, who worked in the toddler room at her center with children 18 to 36 months old, realized that it would be important to think about what young children, prior to age 5, are capable of understanding about death. To do this, she reviewed children’s skills, considered how the developmental abilities of children birth to 5 impact death understanding, and then applied these lessons to her work with toddlers.
Cognitive Development and Children’s Understanding of Death
Most aspects of death are difficult for young children to understand. True death understanding is thought to be complete when children fully understand subordinate concepts such as the fact that death is inevitable, universal, irreversible, characterized by cessation of body function, and caused by a breakdown of bodily function (Yang & Park, 2017). Such comprehensive understanding is thought to be gradually acquired and complete around 8–10 years old and generally not present in any form until approximately 3–4 years old (Kane, 1979; Slaughter & Griffiths, 2007; Zaitchik et al., 2014). It appears that there is a tangible shift in understanding death concepts between 4 to 6 years old and this understanding varies by type of entity, wherein children appear to first grasp death concepts with humans, then animals, then plants. (Orbach et al., 1985; Slaughter et al., 1999). Evidence for this is provided by the work of Nguyen and Gelman (2002) who found that children’s death understanding was more sophisticated with regard to animals than plants and that while 4-year-olds understood finality and causality with relationship to plant death, they did not understand universality or inevitability. In contrast, 6-year-olds understood all of these death concepts. Children younger than 4 have not demonstrated an understanding of these explicit death concepts. For example, with regard to irreversibility, very young children tend to see death as a temporary separation. Although children notice absence, which is not surprising given that object permanence can be seen in children as young as a few months old (Baillargeon et al., 2011), they do not understand that death is permanent. Young children may realize that a death has happened, but not that death is irreversible (Slaughter & Griffiths, 2007). Even older children may struggle with this particular concept, as drawings created by children 4–7 years old sometimes contain attempts to make a person alive again (Yang & Park 2017). Additional examples of children’s thinking about these death concepts is provided in Table 1.
Source: Adapted from Speece (1995)
In addition to a blossoming understanding of the death concepts outlined previously, children as young as 4 or 5 have a naïve understanding of biology, which allows children to make predictions and give explanations for biological phenomena. With regard to death, preschool age children can comment on the fact that vital organs have a life force, or a vitalistic causality, and that cessation of such organs can lead to death (Vlok & de Witt, 2012). Preschoolers recognize that the insides of an animal are necessary for it to function and babies as young as 8 months old expect self-propelling objects to have insides (Setoh et al., 2013). A naïve understanding of biology emanates from children’s interactions with items such as plants and animals and conversations with adults (Vlok & de Witt, 2012). Studies have shown that providing preschool and early school age children with biological explanations about the body can increase children’s knowledge about vital organs and the likelihood that children adopt a biological understanding of death (Slaughter, 2005; Vlok & de Witt, 2012). Children’s naïve understanding of biology does not mean that they understand complex ideas and language. Generally, children 5 and younger focus on the most salient components of tasks and situations, and they are not ready for complicated explanations of death and biological functioning. Preschool and early school age children seem best suited for external, noncognitive explanations of biology and death, rather than psychological, cognitive ones (Vlok & de Witt, 2012; Yang & Park, 2017). Wong (2010) noted that, for 5- and 6-year-olds, biological conceptions of death (e.g., illness potentially leading to death) dominate over psychological ones and Kane (1979) found that young school age children believe that the dead continue to retain cognitive functions, such as knowing and feeling, but not noncognitive functions, such as breathing. These examples indicate that young children, 4–6 years old, tend to understand tangible concepts of death, rather than subtle, non-tangible ones (Bering & Bjorklund, 2004). In sum, while toddlers may not understand death or biological functioning in the same way as slightly older children, they are gathering information that will be used to develop both the naïve understanding of biology they will use in preschool and the later death understanding they will acquire in late preschool through elementary school.
Emotional Development and Children’s Understanding of Death
Although children younger than 3 typically do not fear death, as they do not have a concrete understanding of what death involves (Slaughter & Griffiths, 2007), they are capable of expressing emotions related to loss or separation (Slaughter, 2005; Wong, 2010). When faced with loss, preschool age children have been shown to experience sleep and eating disturbances, anxiety, and emotional/behavioral disruptions (Bugge et al., 2014). Such reactions can be exacerbated by inadequate adult response. Renaud, Engarhos, Schleifer, and Talwar (2014) noted that when adults do not sufficiently discuss separation and death with young children (2–7 years old), they can become depressed, and that open discussions about death prompt more positive evaluations from children. Talking about death does not create sadness, it merely promotes expression of feelings that are already present (Schonfeld & Demaria, 2016). Adults need to be mindful of their nonverbal expressions of grief and loss. Very young children use social referencing as a way to understand how to react to various situations (Flavell, 2004) and 4–6-year-olds have demonstrated that they pay attention to how adults react to loss (Wong, 2010). Although a young child might not fully understand that someone has died, they will notice others crying and people acting differently than they normally do, as well as feelings of discomfort (Renaud et. al., 2014; Willis, 2002). Yang and Park (2017) analyzed the drawings of children 4–7 years old and found that 72.6% of them related death to negative emotions, indicating that they understand feelings associated with death. Young children see how others react to death and mirror such responses, both adaptive and maladaptive (Wong, 2010).
The Adult’s Role
Once Teresa had a firm grasp of young children’s cognitive and emotional skills, she used this information to guide her role in helping children understand death. She realized that, on the basis of their cognitive and emotional capabilities, the toddlers and very young preschool age children in her class needed appropriate feedback to help them avoid a disturbed, maladaptive understanding of death (Vlok & de Witt, 2012). A clear understanding of children’s developmental skills in this area, as well as specific strategies that can be used, is vital and not common among adults interacting with young children. For instance, studies have shown that early education teachers feel unprepared to discuss the topic of death with children and have not had specific training (Galende, 2015; Reid & Dixon, 1999). The good news is that this same research shows that teachers who have had training feel more comfortable with the topic and are more likely to answer children’s questions about death (Reid & Dixon, 1999). Given that training and discussion can facilitate teacher’s willingness to broach this topic, and children’s understanding, the following tips and strategies may be useful. It is important to note that while the strategies listed here can be applied to any death (that of a plant, animal, or person), when children experience death that is extremely personal, traumatic, or unexpected (regardless of their age), they may need additional supports and services. See the Learn More box for resources related to these more significant, traumatic sources of death.
Provide Accurate, Honest Explanations
Teresa strove to be accurate and honest in her explanations of death (see Table 2). This does not mean that she shared all the details of death, but rather she shared concepts that young children could understand. To illustrate this idea, when the toddlers in her classroom discovered that the class pet fish had died, Teresa provided explanations of death such as, “Their heart stopped beating and they died,” or “See how the fish’s mouth and gills are not moving anymore.” She did not use explanations that were too complex or abstract such as, “The dissolved oxygen level in the tank was too low and the fish was unable to breathe” because these terms are too advanced and abstract. By explaining death in the most tangible way possible, Teresa promoted children’s understanding of biology and the importance of internal organs to life functioning.
Teresa was careful not to use euphemisms. Children under 5 are confused by phrases such as “he’s sleeping” because they do not help children understand the finality of death (Yang & Park, 2017). People wake up from sleep all the time, and telling a child that the deceased is “sleeping” negates the fact that a death has occurred. Children may also develop fear of going to sleep themselves, or of having someone they love go to sleep. Young children, 3 to 5 years old, already believe that the deceased can continue to grow and breathe (Nagy, 1948), and labeling death as “sleep” implies that the deceased is still functioning in the same manner as when they were alive. These types of euphemisms contribute to nonbiological thinking about death, and may generate confusion and concern (Slaughter, 2005). Instead, it is important to use clear, concrete words such as “died” to facilitate children’s understanding of death (Schonfeld & Demaria, 2016).
Be an Emotional Role Model
Teresa’s awareness of children’s reliance on social referencing encouraged her to consistently label and model her own emotions. For example, when mourning the unexpected death of her father, Teresa learned that it is okay to let children know you are feeling sad and missing the person who died. When pretending to call family members on the classroom block phone, a child noticed that she was sad and asked her why. Teresa explained that she was sad because her dad was dead and that she couldn’t call him or see him anymore. Adults may try to hide their tears and emotions to not upset children, but in reality, seeing an adult cry or be emotionally vulnerable lets children know that it is acceptable for them to cry and grieve. It also helps them be comfortable expressing sympathy rather than ignoring someone’s sadness. “The emotions we adults demonstrate, the way we talk about emotions, and the ways we react to children’s emotional experiences are important contributors to children’s enduring patterns of emotional expressiveness” (Denham, 1998, p. 130). Another part of being an emotional role model is to consider personal feelings about death and grief. Studies have found that about half of young adults and one quarter of middle aged adults personally fear death (Russac et al., 2007) and that, even when adults know that it is important to have conversations about death with young children, they are uncomfortable doing so (Galende, 2015; Reid & Dixon, 1999; Renaud et al., 2014). This data suggests that adults need to examine their own fears and biases. “We are more likely to be successful and to be comfortable with interactions that we have anticipated at least in some measure and with those to which we have given some forethought” (Corr, 1982, p. 53). When the toddlers in Teresa’s class found a dead lizard, she was careful not to display fear or disgust, but rather curiosity and concern, to encourage the children to ask questions and talk about their observations.
Be Attentive and Responsive to Feelings
Teresa practiced mind-mindedness with her toddlers. Mind-mindedness is the ability to understand the child’s internal state and then interact with the child accordingly (Meins et al., 2012). For example, when a toddler in Teresa’s class lost a close uncle in a car crash, and repeatedly crashed his toy cars into the blocks, Teresa said “‘I see your car keeps crashing. Are you thinking about your uncle? I know you loved him very much.” Noticing the child’s play afforded Teresa the opportunity to discuss the loss and how the child might be feeling. Teresa understood that although adults should not force children to talk about death or grief, they should be in tune with children’s feelings and lives outside of school, and that by being present and observant, adults can help children better understand emotions through discussions, being mindful, and modeling.
Build Emotional Literacy
Part of emotional literacy involves building the vocabulary needed to identify and describe different emotions (Joseph & Strain, 2003). Children may feel a certain emotion for different reasons, which can also be confusing if the child does not have guidance from an adult. For instance, a child may feel sad when their mom leaves, but they might also feel sad when they drop their ice cream. In these situations, the adult could introduce, both orally and through literature, words such as disappointed, heartbroken, or lonely to more fully capture feelings experienced. For instance, when reading the book Saying Goodbye to Lulu, by Corinne Demas, to her toddlers, Teresa used illustrations such as the child crying over the death of her pet to stimulate discussion and introduce emotion vocabulary to the children. Teresa was also able to relate the illustrations to a particular child who had lost a pet by saying “You wanted hugs after your dog died because you were crying and sad, just like the girl in the book.”
Create a Predictable and Caring Environment
For toddlers who had directly experienced significant loss, Teresa was careful to create an environment in which the child felt loved and to reduce the fear that others might leave them. The loss of a loved one, such as a parent, can mean a disruption in the daily routine of a family (Schonfeld & Demaria, 2016). Young children take comfort from predictable routines, and when death causes disruption, it is important for adults to try and keep the routine as normal as possible. Maintaining a familiar routine is not to prevent the child from noticing the absence, but rather to help the young child realize that they will still be loved and taken care of by those around.
Teresa also realized that she could create a classroom environment in which children could feel safe to openly express their grief and ask questions they might not be able to ask their parents (Wood, 2008). When a death occurs, especially the death of a close relative, parents are likely to be overwhelmed with grief and not able to attend to their child’s questions and loss (Schonfeld & Demaria, 2016). A teacher may be able to provide the availability a grieving parent might not be able to provide soon after a death. Teachers can also provide resources for families to use as guides to start the conversation about the loss with their young child. Being mindful of varying parenting styles and beliefs is important when providing resources; some parents might take a more direct approach, while some families might prefer to prepare what to say by browsing through various resources before bringing up the topic with their young child. Teachers can acknowledge differences between families and respect family beliefs, but also make themselves available as support when grieving parents are ready, “I can’t imagine how you are feeling right now. When you are ready, I would like to offer support and resources in how to have this difficult conversation with your child. It’s important that they understand why everyone around them is feeling sad, but also to let them know they are loved by their family and that love isn’t going to stop.”
Introduce Death During Teachable Moments
Teresa used classroom pets and plants as a tool to help her toddlers understand the life cycle, including death. She understood that classroom pets and plants provide many exciting, interesting, and teachable moments in a child’s life. Pets provide opportunities for children to learn that living things move, breathe, and eat. Research has shown that pet ownership is related to increased biological knowledge (Geerdts et al., 2014). Because all living things die, pets present opportunities to talk about death with young children. For example, Teresa worked to help her toddlers understand why a dead animal no longer moves. She talked about how the animal is still and not able to perform the movements the child previously saw. She allowed children to examine the animal’s body with magnifying glasses. For children who were interested in the burial process, she helped them decorate a box to put the animal’s body in, dig a hole for the animal, and identify a song to sing for the dead animal before they buried it. During this process Teresa was careful to address the fact that the animal was dead and cannot move or eat, was not sleeping, and that its body will stay in the ground. She used the words, “burial,” “coffin,” and “dead.”
Plant life is all around and can provide “emotionally neutral opportunities to learn about life and death” (Furman, 1990, pp. 16–17). Teresa allowed children to plant seeds and plants, which provided numerous activities to discuss the lifecycle. Examples of teachable moments related to planting included talking about how the plant will need the right amount of water to grow and that too much or not enough water can kill the plant, how pulling buds off of a plant before they open will cause the flower to die, and how when leaves turn brown it means they have died. Reading a book such as The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages, by Leo Buscaglia, can support learning about the lifecycle of a plant, including death at the end of the cycle (see Table 3 for book reading tips). Opening the conversation with preschool age children with statements such as, “Tell me what you see” or “What do you think is going to happen next?” allows adults to follow the child’s lead and begin the conversation about all living things eventually dying. For toddlers who are nonverbal (or children with a small vocabulary) books such as these can be used by describing what is seen on the pages instead of reading the book in its entirety the first time, “See all those leaves on the branches? All the leaves changed color—red, orange, and purple…the leaf died and fell to the ground.”
Although the death of pets or plants can be used as preparatory work for more significant losses a child might experience, such as the death of a parent or caregiver, as noted earlier in this article, these significant and traumatic deaths can impact a child’s life greatly and will need greater attention and perhaps professional support from an infant and early childhood mental health specialist or other mental health provider (see Table 4). Moreover, the loss of someone that many of the children know—one of the children, a parent or caregiver, or teacher or other familiar staff member—will affect everyone, including teachers. In this case, the loss to the community will require attention to the emotional needs of everyone affected.
Table 4. Additional Resources for Traumatic Deaths
|National Child Traumatic Stress Network||Tips for helping young children, school age, and teens with traumatic stress.|
|Child Mind Institute
|Information broken down by age and experience, as well as when to seek professional help.|
|Massachusetts General Hospital: Marjorie E. Korff PACT Program
|A toolkit for caregivers and educators when a child’s parent is seriously ill.|
|Sesame Street in Communities and Sesame Street for Military Families
|Activities and videos from familiar faces on Sesame Street to help discuss death and grief.|
Note: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a booklet about how to navigate loss by suicide with young children that would be a helpful addition. source
Encourage Pretend Play
It is important to allow children the opportunity to engage in pretend play. Pretend play is an important tool in the lives of young children and affords them opportunities to engage in meaning making—understanding events more deeply and creating cause and effect narratives around events—which can minimize stress and confusion (Goldstein, 2020). In other words, young children play stressful, traumatic things out, rather than talk them out. Typically, toddlers and early preschool age children play out things that they have seen real people in their lives do in a more solitary fashion (e.g., a 2-year-old pretends to cry like Mommy did when the family pet died), whereas older preschool age children act out more elaborate scenarios with small groups of children (e.g., a 4-year-old who diagnoses her “patient” with the coronavirus and declares in a matter-of-fact tone that she will probably die). Although such play is developmentally normal, teachers should carefully observe children’s pretend play themes and activities. Such observation is a great way to learn more about what children understand (and misunderstand) about death. Observation is also a helpful tool in considering whether children need additional services to help them process their experience. For instance, in her observations of the toddlers in her classroom, Teresa was always mindful of a story told to her by another teacher. This teacher, who worked with preschool age children, shared a story about a child who was damaging classroom dolls and taking off their heads. She was very concerned about this form of play, as it seemed indicative of some sort of trauma, and reached out to the child’s mother. The mother related that the child was involved in an accident as an infant where her father was killed and decapitated. Although the mother thought that the child was too young to remember, her play indicated that she had not been able to resolve and process this incident adequately, and both the teacher and mother realized that counseling services for the child were in order. While engagement in pretend play is often sufficient for children to process death and death-related experiences, some children may need the services of an infant and early childhood mental health specialist.
Encourage Children to Wonder
Young children are curious about the world around them and frequently ask “why” and “how come” to further their understanding of how things work and why things happen. A study by Frazier, Gelman, and Wellman (2009) found that children are seeking adult input to their answers, not just merely trying to engage in conversation. This study found that when adults provided children with explanatory answers to their questions, children were more likely to ask a follow-up question than if adults provided them with a nonexplanatory answer, such as “I don’t know” or “because.” This study suggests that it is important for adults to answer children’s questions with as much information as they have, in the accurate and honest way described above, but this does not mean that wondering together does not have a place in conversation with young children. The study by Frazier and colleagues also found that when given nonexplanatory answers such as “I don’t know,” children were more likely to contribute their own ideas about how or why something worked. If adults are careful to pair an answer of “I don’t know” with “What do you think?” children are then invited to engage in wondering with adults about how and why death works. Death is a subject with much factual information to share with young children, but it is also a topic surrounded by mystery that can generate questions difficult for adults to answer and promote conversations filled with wondering.
Consider the Role of Context and Encourage Parent Participation
All of the previous tips and strategies must be considered in the context of children’s lives. There are many factors that contribute to an understanding of death, and people’s responses to loss, including religion, culture, and economic circumstance (Essa & Murray, 1994; Wong, 2010). An example of this would be religious beliefs about an afterlife, which run counter to the idea of death as irreversible. Children in neighborhoods where death is a more frequent occurrence may develop an understanding of naïve biology and death concepts at an earlier age than children who have not experienced regular loss (Kane, 1979). It is important to get to know individual children and their families before determining how best to approach children who have experienced loss, and more generally, how to broach this topic with young children. Family views on death should be considered and respected. It is also important to communicate with parents plans about how the topic of death will be approached in the classroom and why. This type of communication is best handled via two-way dialogue, rather than just informing parents of classroom policy. Such dialogue promotes discussion, allows parents to share their views, and provides opportunities for teachers to share resources and data-driven information about child development with parents.
Through research and experience, Teresa learned that there is not one right way to help very young children learn about and process death. Instead, the focus should be on including children in the process in ways that they can understand, instead of lying to them or hiding death from them. Children are curious about life and death, and that curiosity should be approached with understanding and honesty, keeping in mind the child’s developmental capabilities.
Children’s books about death
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death
K. Brown & M. Brown (2009)
Little, Brown and Company
I Had a Friend Named Peter: Talking to Children About the Death of a Friend
J. Cohn (1987)
William Morrow and Company
Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs
T. dePaola (2000)
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children
B. Mellonie & R. Ingpen (1983)
I Miss You: A First Look at Death
P. Thomas (2001)
Barron’s Educational Series
Books about death of an animal
Saying Goodbye to Lulu
C. Demas (2004)
Little, Brown and Company
When a Pet Dies
F. Rogers (1988)
Putnam & Grosset Group
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney
J. Viorst (1988)
Books about emotions
Today I Feel Silly & Other Moods That Make My Day
J. Curtis (1998)
The Blue Day Book for Kids
B. T. Greive (2006)
Books about plants
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages
L. Buscaglia (1982)
Welcome Fall: Leaves.
M. Easton (2011)
How to Talk to Your Kids About Coronavirus | Parenting Tips & Advice | PBS KIDS for Parents
Teresa Olin, MA, is a Quality Start Los Angeles (QSLA) quality improvement coach. She holds a master’s degree in child development from California State University, San Bernardino. Ms. Olin currently works with state preschools to improve the quality of their teacher–child interactions and classroom environments. She was previously an infant and toddler teacher at California State University, San Bernardino.
Amanda Wilcox-Herzog, PhD, is a professor of child development at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB). She holds a doctorate in developmental studies from Purdue University. Dr. Wilcox-Herzog has taught children from birth through 8 years old and teaches classes in early childhood education and child development. She is the faculty supervisor of the CSUSB Infant/Toddler Laboratory School and supervises assessment efforts for the San Bernardino QRIS System, Quality Start San Bernardino.
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