Whether it’s a plant, a pet, or a relative, your child may face loss. You may struggle with what to say when loss occurs, and there’s a good reason for that. Toddlers are too young to truly understand death, so trying to explain what happened to a grandparent or pet is tricky. But, even though an understanding of death won’t sink in until age 4 or 5, your toddler still realized something is different.
In this article we’ll walk you through expert advice for approaching this sensitive topic with your little one.
Tips for Guiding Your Toddler Through Loss
Keep it Simple and Straightforward
Toddlers are tapped into the emotions of primary adults in their lives, so it’s important to acknowledge that something has happened. In an understandable attempt to not upset your little one, you may reach for euphemisms to explain death. The dog was “put to sleep,” Grandpa “isn’t here anymore,” or Aunt Maria “ went on vacation for a long time.”
Rosemarie Truglio, a developmental psychologist and senior vice president of research at Sesame Workshop, explains that these mild portrayals of death can actually confuse or even frighten young children. This is especially true for the word “sleep.” Putting “the dog to sleep” or saying that Grandma “went to sleep forever” can actually spark fear in young children, because sleep is a part of their everyday routine.
Truglio says it’s important to be straightforward and use concrete terms. “When you die, your heart stops, your body stops working. When your body stops working, you can’t eat, you can’t breathe, and you can’t talk anymore.” While statements like these can seem scary for parents, they’re much less confusing for a toddler.
Gently Remind Them
Toddlers digest this information in bits and pieces, because their memory skills are still developing. After clearly explaining what happened to Grandpa, don’t be surprised if your toddler says, “Where Pop-pop?” two days later. Children need time and gentle reminders that someone close to them is gone.
It’s Okay to Cry
Truglio explains that it’s important for children to see parents grieve. «We’re gonna cry, and I think that you need to explain why you’re crying.» Sharing an emotional moment with your child can be comforting and healing for both of you.
Express gratitude for knowing the person or pet you’ve lost. “I know we’re sad now, but I’m so happy that we got to have so much fun with Max. We got to love him, and pet him, and play with him. We’ll never forget him.” This brings positivity, love, and appreciation into conversations about loss.
Surround Them with Love
A support system is critical in these situations, even to a toddler. When they experience loss, it’s extra important that feel cared for and loved. Spending quality time with you and other loved ones can make a big difference in how they perceive death.
Children’s books are always a great way to introduce emotional topics to little ones. Here are a few recommendations that are appropriate for toddlers:
- Something Very Sad Happened by Bonnie Zucker
- Tim’s Goodbye by Steven Salerno
- The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr
Even though toddlers can’t understand death, we still need to address it with them. Sharing emotions and clear explanations can help ease them into understanding the circle of life.