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28 July 2006

Should You Tell Children the Truth about Death?

By A. R. Johnson

Your four-year-old asks, “Are you going to die?”


Should you tell the truth -- explain about life and death?


“Absolutely not,” concludes Jacksonville State University social work instructor Dee Barclift. “A child could better reason with a four-eyed monster coming to eat him than with the death of a loved one.”


What should parents and guardians do then? According to Barclift, "the first priority to establish with a child of any age is to let them know that they are safe.” And, if you’re dealing with a much younger child –less than seven— you simply say “No.”


According to the instructor, young children cannot understand the concept of life and death. Although some children develop reasoning and coping skills sooner than others, Mrs. Barclift said this depends upon the individual.


So, how do children deal with deadly airplane crashes and other news?


According to JSU child specialist Jonathan Adams, instructor of social work, news of death "causes a lot of insecurities because we all want to know what to expect. Expectations give us security.


"Children don’t know what to expect, and when they’re in an environment where they might not be receiving any nurturing, then in those situations [learning about death] adds to their insecurities. It also, in turn, affects their ability to form relationships and connections between their family and members of society.”


When these walls of security are torn down, it causes a, “crack in their foundation,” says Mr. Adams, “Unless you repair that damage and get some professional help to fix these issues, a person can lose most, if not all, social skills.”


He said children then have a very natural need to feel safe.


According to Adams, children have what social workers call a cycle of need. This model demonstrates that human needs are met through repetition and intervention that ultimately should result in relaxation and security. When needs are not met, a “crack in their foundation” occurs.


Along with needing to feel secure, children need to understand how the world works.


A child who asks his father if he’s going to die has the need to understand that he will never be abandoned; that he’s safe. In time, he’ll come to understand that everyone dies and that things change. Helping a child feel secure will help guide him from one change to the next, according to experts.


For further information, contact Dee Barclift at (256) 782-5738 or email her at Jonathan Adams is available at (256) 782-5338 or