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Explaining death to children

Experts tell how parents can discuss tragedies with their young kids

Posted: December 4, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 4, 2013 2:00 a.m.
 

They came with their parents Tuesday and stood by the makeshift memorial for actor Paul Walker: some babes in arms, some solemn-looking teenagers, few children of ages between.

With others who have flocked to the Valencia street where actor Paul Walker and his friend, businessman Roger Rodas, were killed in a Porsche crash Saturday, youngsters observed the charred rubble, jarringly sweet-scented by dozens and dozens of burning candles. Mostly, the crowd of 50 or more at a time remained respectfully silent.

Taking youngsters to a memorial of violent death is not necessarily a bad thing, two Santa Clarita Valley psychologists said Tuesday, as long as they are ready for the message that death is part of life.

“I think it can be healthy,” said Valencia psychologist Christopher Jones. “Death is such an interesting topic because it’s something we don‘t bring up with kids — we tend to protect them.”

“The context is normalizing the fact of life and death — these are the two ultimates that we go through,” said Muhammad Ridwan Rahman, a clinical social worker and therapist.

Both said that youngsters who are inquisitive about death, or a particular death, should be invited to talk about the object of their curiosity.

“Typically, what happens when a child of any age — probably 5 to 11, 12, 13 (years of age) — when they experience death and see a death, they internalize and ask, ‘How will this affect me?’” Jones said. “That’s how children learn is through experience and imitation.”

How can a parent know when it’s time to talk to a child about death?

“(When) it’s a question they’ve been asking at home. They look at the front page and they’ve seen the pictures,” Jones said.

He said his own children, ages 9 and 11, have inquired aboutthe deaths of Walker and Rodas, and he’s used their questions as a teaching opportunity.

“They look at the front page and they’ve seen the pictures,” he said. “It’s important that I give them as many facts as I can.”

Rahman said it’s important to distinguish between natural death and unnatural death. Beyond that, trying to explain the unexplainable — like why two lives were taken in a car crash — is pointless, the therapist said.

Rather, parents can take the opportunity to educate their children about the consequences of poor decisions and how to make good ones, the therapist said.

Jones agreed. His own children watch the speedometer when he’s driving and point out if he exceeds the speed limit, he laughed.

Ultimately, “What’s important is how to celebrate life and how to keep moving forward and how to honor the person’s life,” he said.

For more information, see the National Institutes of Health publication “Talking to Children about Death” at http://www.cc.nih.gov/ccc/patient_education/pepubs/childeath.pdf.

 

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