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  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 9:44am
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Relationships: obsession with death a normal stage of development for kids

The tricky question of death

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 10:36pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 10:36pm

My four-year-old daughter has suddenly become obsessed with death. There have been no deaths in our family. I have checked with the school, and none of the children have experienced bereavement. We are not religious, and I don't know how to explain to it her.

It must be disturbing to see your daughter develop a sudden fascination with death. But this is a common phase for young children. Although she has not experienced death first-hand, think about all the television programmes, radio, internet, cartoons, and books in her life. If you start taking note, you will be surprised by the number of times the themes of death and loss are mentioned.

Children at the ages of four and five often say words such as "death", "heaven" and "gone", but they don't have the capacity to fully understand the permanency of death. Consider how often in cartoons characters are squashed or shot and then bounce back up again.

Children are great observers, and they learn by copying what they see or hear. Often in my practice, I see children acting out scenes with toys and talking about issues that frighten them, such as natural disasters or violent crime.

When a natural disaster strikes, your child will find it hard to avoid seeing it on television, or hearing about it on the radio (unless you turn it off). Some of the graphic details can be disturbing for young children.

They don't have to experience death through the loss of a relative, as it is everywhere.

This is not the time to discuss the violence that children are exposed to by the media, but I do wonder if this sort of material could desensitise children to aggressive behaviour in real life?

I often talk to teachers and they can easily tell how much television children watch by the language they use, and the level and direction of their imagination.

We can't shelter our children from the mass media, but we should certainly explain to them what is being shown, and try to limit their exposure to violent programmes.

Children need the age-appropriate version of the truth, which they can understand. To explain about death in general is very different from talking about the death of a significant person. First, ask your daughter what her ideas of death and heaven are.

Find out what her understanding of death is, and whether she is worried about it. It is important to lay down the foundation of an honest and open relationship, so she feels no question she has is too trivial or frightening to ask in the future.

If she is worried about death, try to be empathetic. Telling her there is nothing to worry about could be frustrating and discourage her from opening up in the future. Her worries are real to her.

Children aged four or five can’t understand the permanence of death

The first step in helping your daughter overcome these fears is to accept they are real for her, even if you can't understand them. You need to adopt language that your daughter can follow. When it comes to religious issues, you can explain to her about what you believe in and what other people believe in. If possible, try not to let your negative view colour the topic.

Using picture books lets you keep the discussion on a more objective level. Most children find it easier to flip through the pictures and ask questions. A good book for young children is What Do You Believe? by DK Publishing.

Some children might use words such as "death" as an attention-seeking tool. This is an entirely different matter. Once you are able to differentiate the obsession with death from fear or attention-seeking, you know what problem you have.

But if your child's obsession with death leads to hurting others or herself, you should seek professional advice, as that could mean something more serious than a common developmental phase.

Lora Lee is a child therapist and parenting counsellor with a background in developmental psychology, play therapy and post-separation counselling.

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