Q-and-A with Dr. Troy: How to talk to children about death

During the past 12 months, we’ve been rattled by the tragedies we’ve read and heard about in the news.

In July 2012, 12 people were killed and 58 others were injured in an attack in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting.

Twenty children and six adult staff members were shot to death in December 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Closer to home, an insanity trial is underway for a man who admitted to murdering his three daughters this past summer. Last weekend, a woman and her two children were found dead in their home after authorities say she drowned them and then committed suicide.

As parents, we want to protect our children from these horrors. It’s hard to comprehend discussing the unthinkable – a mother or father taking the life of their child – with our own kids. Do we bring it up? How do we respond when they come to us looking for answers?

We spoke with Dr. Michael F. Troy, Ph.D., L.P., our medical director of behavioral health services, in an attempt to answer some of those questions:

How do I explain death to my child in an age-appropriate way?

Dr. Michael F. Troy

There are important differences between explaining the death of an important person in your child’s life and talking about a tragic death in the news. The former is likely to be a challenging, but near universal, role for a parent.  Eventually, all families will face the loss of a loved one requiring parents to share sad news with their child. While it is typical for parents to find these junctures difficult, this does not mean that they are unable to do so with skill and sensitivity.  Parents are used to explaining things to children in developmentally appropriate ways. Whether it’s why they have to have a shot at a doctor’s office or why they need to move to a new community, parents generally know – by instinct and knowledge – how to do this. Talking about death, while less common and inherently sad, is not an entirely different kind of task. Parents should think of it as being like other kinds of sad or disappointing news they might have to discuss with their child.  The specifics, for example, the closeness of the person who died, whether it was an expected loss, and the age of the child, will determine what is communicated.  But the general point, that parents actually do have experience in talking about difficult things and that they should rely on that experience, is most important.

Talking about deaths reported in the news is a different situation. While there are always exceptional circumstances, it is generally best to wait and see if your child raises the issue.  Whether they are aware of a news story is likely to depend on factors such as their age, how routinely they are exposed to the news, and how direct the event in the news is to their day-to-day lives.  If they don’t have knowledge of the story, raising the issue with them is unlikely to be a helpful. If they do raise the issue, it’s important to first find out what they have learned and what specific questions they have (there is no need to respond with answers to questions they don’t have). Additionally, it is important to keep your feelings and thoughts about the news story separate from the actual, specific concerns your child has. Your job as a parent is to help your child understand the event in a way that’s consistent with their developmental level, as well as to reassure and comfort them as necessary.

How do I explain why a parent killed his/her child?

You can’t really explain what you may not understand yourself. If you find the news of a parent killing her children and then herself perplexing and distressing, then it is OK to say that you are confused and upset by it. At the same time, you can also provide reassurance of your child’s safety and, if necessary, of your own ability to take care of them. If you feel you have some understanding of the event, for example, if it was the result of the mother’s severe mental illness, do your best to explain this briefly and in developmentally appropriate ways and with an emphasis on how rare such events are. You might also want to communicate empathy for those most affected by the loss.

Should I talk about the mental health of the parent? How do I do that?

You should talk about the mental health of the parent if your child asks about it, or if you feel that it’s important and appropriate for you to include in your response to the specific questions your child has asked. It’s unlikely that we would actually know the mental health status of a parent taking the violent and tragic actions reported in these recent cases, especially in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy when it is most likely to be in the news. Consequently, you might note that questions regarding mental health issues have been raised – and what this might mean – without suggesting that you know for certain what led to act of violence. It may also be important for you to note that while mental health issues are sometimes linked to violent acts, the vast majority of people with a mental health diagnosis are not violent.

At what age is it appropriate to approach my kids about this topic? Should I always wait for him/her to bring it up?

Unless you have specific reason to anticipate your child encountering discussion of these issues, it is generally better to wait and see if your child raises such concerns with you. Of course, the older children are, the more likely they are to both hear about and initiate questions about news of a tragic event. Similarly, the older your child is, the more reasonable it likely is to bring up the issue.

Are there things I can say or do to make my child feel safe and at ease?

First, it’s worth remembering that our goal as adults caring for children is to help them feel safe without needing frequent reassurance. If such reassurance is necessary, then the most important thing to emphasize is just how incredibly rare these types of events (school shootings, parents killing their children) are. They are extremely upsetting to hear about, and terribly tragic for the families affected, but also quite unlikely to happen. Because they are so rare and so dramatic, they tend to receive intense media coverage. But it also this pervasive media coverage that can make it seem as if these tragedies are more common than they really are. Consequently, it is almost always reasonable to reassure children that they are safe and that there are many adults in their lives looking out for their wellbeing. Some children will have specific concerns requiring specific reassurance. Younger children are likely to need you to talk about the ways in which their own home and school are safe places, while older children might need help understanding the rarity of these events through comparison to other types of risks.  For example, you might point out that while there are people struck by lightning every year, the odds of any given individual beings struck is exceedingly low.

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