Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Talking To Your Children About The Scary Stuff

Babar is riding happily on his mother's back when...
My son has been extremely interested in death and dying for some time now. At almost 4-years old, I know it's developmentally appropriate, but it's still a little disconcerting at times. I know exactly where it started. It began innocently enough with a copy of one of my favorite childhood books: The Story Of Babar. Oh, it starts out just fine, but by about page three, we encounter a "wicked hunter" who shoots Babar's mother dead. Well, now I had opened Pandora's box. "What is wicked?" "Why did he shoot her?" "Why is Babar scared?"

Shortly after this, we went to the California Science Center which was not only hosting a mummy exhibit (thus, requiring an approximate explanation of what a mummy is) but also has a rot room in which one can "examine maggots feasting on a dead organism" among other things. Well, this really was the jackpot. Our son was fascinated by the machine which, when you turn the handle, shows a time lapse video of a fluffy bunny decomposing and being consumed by maggots. Truly repulsive to me, but an endless source of questions for him. It does also show strawberries going from fresh to rotten, but a dead bunny is waaaay more interesting.

My sweet and thoughtful boy asks the deep questions
We haven't really gotten to the fear stage yet. He's not worried about me dying or Daddy dying; even with Daddy's recent hospital stay. What's interesting, though, is that when he asks if mommy will die and I say, "Yes, but not for a really, really, really long time", he is quiet and then thoughtfully says, "But, will I die, too?". I answer in the same way and he gets very upset. I ask why and wails, generally saying something like, "but when I am dead I won't have my house or my bed or my food!". 

I know that with young children the best way to deal with "big" issues, like death and dying, is to give them straightforward information but not to give them too much. As this excellent BabyCenter.com article suggests,
Young children can't handle too much information at once. At this age, it's most helpful to explain death in terms of physical functions that have ceased, rather than launching into a complicated discussion of a particular illness: "Now that Uncle John has died, his body has stopped working. He can't walk or run, or eat or sleep or see anymore, and he doesn't feel any pain."
So we try to be quite honest with our children when they ask questions, but, as Betsy Brown Braun says, we use "the drip method" of providing information. We give them a little and wait to see if they ask questions. Then we give a little more information and wait to see how they process it. For example, when my husband had his heart attack last week, I waited a day to see how long he would be away from home and then asked my sister-in-law who is a therapist specializing grief counseling, how to proceed. She said the worst thing to do is to lie to children or to use euphemisms. You never want to say to a child "Grandma went to sleep" if she actually died. All that will do is make your child scared of going to sleep. Give your children information in terms they can understand and allow them to ask as many questions as they have. In our case, I simply said Daddy was sick, he went to the hospital because he had a boo boo on his heart. When they asked what kind of boo boo, I gave them the simplest explanation of what a blood clot is that I could come up with and said that it made the blood stop getting to daddy's heart like a plug in a drain. A few more questions about blood clots and that seemed to do the trick.

Mommy, Is Santa going to die?
I took the children to have breakfast with Santa Claus the other morning and on the way our son asked me, "Mommy, will Santa die?". I was a little stumped on that one and said to him, "You know, Santa has been around for a very, very long time and I don't think he dies. He's kind of magical". Silence in the back seat. A little later, after getting a hug from Santa and a photo, our son reached for my hand, looked up at me and whispered "Mommy? Is Santa a little bit magic?" 

I wish magic could fix everything. I know that eventually our children have to learn about death and illness and losing people they love. It breaks my heart to imagine, and I am so incredibly grateful that they haven't yet had to learn such a huge lesson. 

Have you had talks with your kids about "big" issues yet? How have you handled them? Which topics were hardest for you?

Thanks for reading!
The Twin Coach

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5 Great Comments Made By Clicking Here!:

MultipleMum said...

It is a difficult thing to manage. My nearly four year old is talking about it too. Today he said "I don't want to have a birthday because then I will be closer to 100 when I will die". It made me feel sad.

Christina Simon said...

Hi Gina,

Great piece! I'm so glad your husband will be ok. My kids have had some anxiety since the police showed up, guns drawn aimed at the house across the street (home invasion in progress). We drove up on the scene. Yikes!!!

Steven Brogden said...

Gina, it's so wonderful to have a guide like you with kids a few years older than mine, so I can be prepared when they get to the same spots. They're going to think "Gina" is an encyclopedia or something!

Dana said...

My four-year-old twins talk about death all the time, the boy in particular. He's very matter-of-fact, no emotion. All of the questions are straightforward. I remember my 6 yo went through the same questioning at precisely this age though her questions steered more toward the spiritual and metaphysical. The kids were intrigued a few weeks back when they came across a book about mummies that I was horrified to see had multiple, kinda graphic photos. They were fascinated, though, so I just rolled with it.
We try to be honest, like you, and use the "drip method" of answering as well. It sounds like you're handling it beautifully.

Julie Z said...

Gina - sorry your husband went through that scare! My kids are only 3 1/2 but my son (especially) also seems very interested in death... our questions were precipitated by the kids seeing a dead kitty on the side of the road. "When is the kitty going to get up?" "Why are the kitty's eyes open?" Halloween also had them asking about mummies, skeletons and other dead things.

I bought two great books on the subject, that I'm keeping on hand should the questions become more persistent: Badger's Parting Gifts and Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children. They are both superb. Badger would be most appropriate if the kids knew someone who died, and Lifetimes is a good general (and beautiful/honest) explanation.

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