School Counseling Tips:
How to Talk to Children About Death
School counseling is a tough job to do. As a school counselor, you must be ready to help with virtually any social, emotional, family or academic problem that can arise. School counselors cover it all, from bullying to depression, from domestic violence to drugs, from college planning to mental health issues.
School counselors see plenty of the mental health issues that are tough to manage. However, talking to kids about death can be a task school counselors face at least once or more each school year. Having that conversation probably ranks pretty high for difficult, delicate subjects to focus on with children and teens in school counseling sessions. There's certainly the potential to ease or avoid pain, to enlighten, even elevate a child, but there is certainly the potential to confuse, worsen or cause pain, or even frighten or damage a youngster.
Hello from Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. I am a national expert on helping troubled and challenged children and teens. I have written dozens of books, am an adjunct professor for two universities. I also write a column for a national print education magazine, and I train thousands of teachers, counselors and parents annually throughout North American. I also raised two children who turned out to be a social worker and a special ed teacher so I guess I can walk the walk and not just talk the talk.
School counseling is the lifeline for many troubled, disturbed and challenged students. For some of these youngsters, the quality of the school counseling that a child receives can be the single most important force determining whether a child sinks or swims, struggles or thrives. With that in mind, I offer this quick how-to guide to use in counseling, teaching, parenting and elsewhere.
One of my specialty areas is helping children and teens cope with loss. The truth is that children are not uniform creatures and there is no one single right way to talk to a child about death and dying. Having said that, I can offer a few guidelines that are easy for adults to remember and use. I have crafted these how-to steps to be useable by school counselors, teachers, juvenile court staff, social workers and other professionals but these tips have been written to be readily accessible by parents and non-professionals too.
First, use actual life events as your jumping off point rather than mechanically or artificially stage a conversation. Parents can start the conversation as young as they wish, but around 2 years old is a general suggestion for where to start. So, Mom can say "Please don't stomp that bug because he could end up dead," and then be ready to explain what "dead" means. The explanation of "dead" must be concrete enough that a small child can understand it so pairing the discussion with the concept of "all gone" works great. Use an object and hide it to teach "all gone."
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Second, don't worry too much if the child gets the concept of death the first times it's discussed. You're building up to the a more complete understanding as the child ages and develops. Ideally, Moms and Dads should let the child take the lead, and seek questions that should be gently answered. This is an incremental process. If a death occurs in the life of a young child before the concept has been successfully communicated, then aim to give pieces of the concept bit by bit. Give too much and the child will get overwhelmed and their brain can stop absorbing new information on the topic.
Third, children's brains aren't fully developed so abstract, non-concrete concepts can be confusing. Let them use their frame of reference like having a "ghost dog" that a child imagines after the death of a beloved pet. Creations like "ghost dog" are completely normal and actually quite helpful. It takes the whole huge idea of death– something even us adults struggle with– and cuts it down to be a bit more pint-size. Parents can help their children think up their own creations to bridge the gap if their children don't devise their own "ghost dog." For example, a child might create drawings of the departed pet as a way to remember it, and let it "live" on– if only as their picture on the refrigerator.
Fourth, older children and teens do grasp the concept of death and how finite it is. However their immature brains can struggle to cope when there is a loss. For teens who do have good abstract thinking abilities, the focus should be especially tuned into how the older child or teen is coping. Counselors, teachers, school staff and parents shouldn't just judge the book by its cover, and should be alert for acting-out or more covert acting-in behaviors like substance abuse, self-endangering or problems in school.
Finally, loss is part of life, and is just another difficult job that should fall to parents. Waiting to address the subject until the child is older is never a good plan. It will always be tougher for a school counselor to step in late in the game than for a parent to be gently imparting information all along the way.
For parents who are unsure of when to introduce talking about death, sooner is better. So long as they are gentle and let the child take the lead, while observing for distress, it is always better for parents to tell the truth about life– even when the truth is tough to take.