At the age of 4, do they already ask about death?
Lately, some of you have mentioned a common concern during the in-person 4-year visit: your son or daughter asks you about death! That is why we take advantage of this shared space to discuss this matter.
First of all, it is quite normal for a 4-year-old to ask about death, even if they have not directly experienced the passing of a close family member. In their daily lives, they may have seen and heard about this concept in books or TV shows, playing in the schoolyard or observing insects die or plants withering. They may also hear about it in the news (be aware that they always have their antennas on), in conversations about family and friends, or about a pet that has passed away.
Therefore, we agree that it is natural for them to start meeting this concept and be curious about it. But how do they understand it?
At 4 years old, children do not fully grasp the concept of “forever” that is associated with death. This is because they still have concrete and literal thinking, and they have not yet fully differentiated between reality and fantasy. What does “forever” mean? For them, it means “for a loooong time”, but not permanently or definitively., This is because their cognitive capacity does not allow it until around the age of 6.
This uncertainty, along with the curiosity and intrinsic need of children to learn about their surroundings, makes it seem like the child is obsessed with death, which may concern their parents. But it’s just another phase of learning and growth.
So, how to handle questions about death with such young children?
We should not lie, change the subject, or ignore the question. On the contrary, let’s try to answer and take the opportunity to explain this and other related concepts such as “never” or “forever.”
Provide clear and simple answers. For example, we can explain that when an animal, a plant, or a person dies, they stop eating, breathing, drinking, or walking. That is, talking in terms of activities or habits that the child can understand.
If the passing of someone close to them occurs and we have to address this situation with our children, we should avoid using phrases like “grandma has gone away” or “the puppy has fallen asleep”. With these phrases, even though we try to soften the situation, we can cause the opposite effect and increase their anxiety. For example, they can start fearing the act of going to sleep or feeling anxious when someone goes on vacation, as they will relate it to what we have explained to them about death.
Children seek comfort and validation of their emotions through the adults around them. Therefore, in the face of questions that may sometimes make us uncomfortable, let’s not ignore them. Let’s acknowledge their concerns, validate emotions, and reassure with clear and simple answers.
Finally, by now you already know the Project BiSC team quite well, and you know that we like to give ideas to enrich your parental tasks. So here we propose the following family activity to do at home: get a plant with your 3-4-year-old, and take care of it by watering it, pruning it, finding a place with light and without direct sunlight, seeing how it lives and grows. If the plant dies or even if you find a withered plant, you can take the opportunity to talk about what happened to the plant and address this topic with your child.
We invite you to share this experience by posting a photo of the pant on Instagram and tagging us at @projectebisc. We will repost it! If you do not have an Instagram account, you can send the picture to us through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you very much, BiSC families, and see you soon!