Talking to Children and Teens

Everything you wanted to know, but did not know How, When, and What to do!

"What do I tell the children". When a loved one dies, the emotional toll of the family and friends is enormous. In addition, professionals or other community members who are directly involved also suffer. The experience of death and dying for everyone creates intense grief, confusion, and sadness. When professionals are faced with supporting the family they may find it difficult and often do not know what to say or do. In addition, the training of many professionals is specific to their career choice and may not include handling bereaved and brokenhearted children and family members.  

  • How do I begin to help children cope with the realities of life, death, and living?
  • What if I say the wrong thing?
  • I went into this helping profession not knowing that someday I would sit across from a child and tell them that their “mother is dead”.
  • I never took a class on grief and loss and now I am required to help grieving children?
  • Isn’t it better that I make a referral for counseling for these children and this can be addressed there?

Timing and every situation can be different. What to tell the children depends on many factors. Well prepared explanations may need some practice. Talking to children normally is simple but talking to children about death comes with much emotions and can be challenging. Often starting with simple questions can lead with what to say next. The goal here is ensuring that the child has a good understanding of the situation.  

What does the child understand?
What did they experience/witness?
What do they know?

Knowing this you can find the right words to explain what happened, be honest, and provide simple age-appropriate language depending on the ages of the children and avoid euphemisms. Leaving children in the dark without any information creates further anxiety, confusion, and only complicates their grieving process. It is at this crucial moment that we often look for others to address the children and we must remember that children need to be informed so that they can begin their grieving process.

Understand what the child is developmentally capable of understanding. Each age group is different and there are developmental considerations in order to know what you can say and do. (link: Developmental Understanding of Death) When professionals are well prepared and use "common sense" you might not say the "wrong thing". Every situation is different, yet, if you find that you are the one who must deliver the "sad news" about someone's who has died you must be prepared. Strong emotions such as disbelief, outrage, uncontrollable crying, silence, shock, etc. comes along with delivering sad news. Also, we are all human and we cannot escape the emotions that come up for us as we talk to children about death. You could find that you have a strong emotional reaction and have difficulty holding back your own tears. Be real, be aware of our feelings and emotions and don't be afraid of showing that you too have feelings! Many professionals have had death education and many have not. This, of course, depends on their career choice and whether or not such a course was offer.

  • Provide accurate and honest information
  • Be Real
  • Use appropriate and simple language
  • Have an open agenda
  • Provide bereavement information and resources
  • Listen and Observe

Death Glossary to help talk to children
Developmental Understanding of Death
Bibliography: Books for use with children, teens, adults, and professionals
Resources:  other grief links and organizations

“People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou