How to talk with children about death


Death is a difficult subject to approach with a child especially when someone close to them passes away. You have your own feelings to process and must also provide empathy and strength for your child. Since Dr. Rusty passed recently, I thought this would be an ideal time to review how to speak with children of different ages about death. In my experience, an open, honest, and direct communication based on their developmental understanding is best.


PRESCHOOLERS – The butterfly won’t fly anymore.


Preschoolers have partial logic so when explaining death they may not grasp its permanency. They understand some of the realities of life but can quickly leap into fantasy. Often only a small thread separates the two worlds.

I recommend using the actual words like death yet illustrate the meaning by referring to familiar activities to help them process. For instance, you may tell them that grandpa died this morning and he will not breathe, eat, sleep, or wake up anymore. You can also include other real-world realities that they may have previously experienced like when we found a butterfly on the sidewalk, it had died too. The butterfly will not fly anymore. Preschoolers learn by repetition of simple examples presented in a familiar way.

Death is not a singular event. It is also an adjustment in life and feelings. Make sure you speak about your emotions and help them describe theirs as well. Drawing and free play outside may serve to create expression since connecting words and feelings may elude them.


GRADE SCHOOL – Everyone dies in their time.


Grade-schoolers have concrete thinking rather than imaginative reality like preschoolers. They understand the words used to describe death and its permanency. They will be sad without additional explanation. They may not understand the profound weight this carries for you and the changes this means for their lives.

While they have concrete logic, they do not understand nuanced values and abstract thinking. They see things very black and white. Children at these ages understand that everyone will one day die, while at the same time believing that death does not apply to them. They lack the abstract.

Children can have widely varying behavioral responses as they process their feelings. Often their emotions and words are disconnected. Parents are advised to talk about their feelings as a way to role model growth in identifying and processing emotions. A parent may want to discuss how a death will affect the child’s life. Children may have questions and it is important to try your best to listen to the questions, the reasons behind the questions, and be generous in your honesty and openness. Again, reassure them with presence and love.


TEENAGERS – An invitation to talk.


Teenagers are a narcissistic form of ourselves. They need boundaries and expectations more than monitoring.  Structure and continuity are important for all ages, but especially so for teens.  An invitation to talk without expectation is a powerful communication tool and this may be all they need.

Teens may move quickly in and out of grief.  They understand death through past experiences, music, film, school, religious instruction, and the lens of current events. What they may not do is synchronize the importance of the death into their life. This is normal. Almost everything to a teen is seen through their needs only. Give them space to grieve in this way while being open to their agenda on when they want to talk.

Remember that you are permanently carving their eventual coping skills through your example. The important thing is to reassure preschool-aged children with your presence and love, help your child connect feelings and words, and wait for your teen to cope.

10 Steps to Better Parents


10) Your child’s needs are changing as they grow.  Embrace your inner “cup” to fill them with what they need.  The value and beauty of a cup rests n its emptiness and ability to receive whatever it is given.  You are not exactly the same every day. In the same way, clear your mind of what you think you know of your child, and make an effort to get to know your child on a daily basis as they grow.


09) Begin with the ultimate end in mind.  Ask yourself what the relationship with your child looks like 50 years from now.  In every action you take decide if this action, is moving you closer to that ultimate destination you want with your child.


08) Help & hug.  When young children are acting out they really need help.  Forego the threats and consequences.  Identify the need and help them to solve their need. Recall the teachers and mentors you lovingly recall are the ones who spent the time learning what you needed.


07) Make yourself happy-not them.  True entitlements are few in life, but happiness is surely one of them.  Your child is like gold and you the sun.  When you shine they glitter.  Also, we teach our children to make themselves happy in the process.


06) Timmy Time.  Make a special time for your child and do whatever reasonable thing they want during that time.  Even if it is watching their favorite show with them.  As Jesus did with John the Fisherman, go to them in their own activities.


05) Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. This is an exercise of integrity and humility.  We acknowledge that the universe will unfold in its own way and at its own time. Therefore we are careful with our word also understanding and mindful of what we ask of others. It’s about trust and integrity.  


04) Respond more and react less.  Observe, listen, seek to understand, problem solve and respond instead of roaring and raging. You are the role model. Your children will rage when they do not get their way based on your example and leadership – or visa versa– they will sit with love and understanding as others are struggling.


03) Children learn and model based on the examples we set… especially when you think they aren’t looking.


02) Chores. Get them started early.  They will learn the value and satisfaction of work.  They will learn the need to contribute to the whole and nurtures them with a sense of responsibility.


01) Listen to your gut and trust your intuition.

A child’s odyssey of hardship defiance and hope

Does hardship in childhood keep your child from being successful?

Divorce, chronic illness, trauma, abuse, addiction and neglect are common settings for childhood. 75% of children experience at least one of these ongoing stressors.

So we worry as parents, “Is a child’s full potential limited by these difficult circumstances? Or worse, do these childhood events result in an adult life of despair and dysfunction?”

The good news is NO!

Social scientists studied 400 of the most successful people in the 20th century and this is what they found:

1. Less than 15% were raised in supportive, untroubled homes, and

2. 75% grew up in a family burdened by poverty, abuse, absent parents, alcoholism, or serious illness.

Adverse childhood events teach resilience.

Children learn a way of life to courageously face repetitive and ongoing battles with determination. They are trained to handle adversity and succeed by surviving a decades-long endeavor. Born of the forges of an adverse childhood is a soul ready to flourish.

They flourish by seeking people who care, fighting for a better life for themselves, setting goals, and seizing opportunities.

They possess an inner defiance. Some show it externally by being in a constant battle against others. Others surrender externally while remaining internally defiant. The common denominator is inner defiance and either manifestation is essential.

Basically, inner defiance creates a decades-long resilience that results in a scale of success uncommon among us.

Stress can be a teacher and a coach.  Through the exercise of responding to stress, reshaping an attitude towards stress, and overcoming stress resilience is born. It is born of habit. You become stronger with practice.

People are not more successful because of a happy, stress-free childhood. They are more content and accomplished because of internal fortitude and believing in themselves.

How Long Is Your Sick?

sick-child-rexThis is from an article in the British Medical Journal and explains how long common illnesses last in children.  This should be informative and relieving to parents as they experience their child’s illness.

“In most (90%) of children, earache was resolved by 7-8 days, sore throat between 2-7 days, croup by 2 days, bronchiolitis by 21 days, acute cough by 25 days, common cold by 15 days, and non-specific symptoms by 16 day.”

I recommend to my patients high dose vitamin D3 once a day for 3 days at the first onset of an illness to boost the immune system, saccharomyces boulardii for non-bloody diarrhea and high dose probiotics and/or Histamine DAO for allergies. Please check with your physician for the appropriateness of these supplements before taking them.


Thompson M, et al. BMJ,2013;347: f7027

What are the consequences of a child removed from nature?

First_Rain_(228226305)One generation from now most people in the U.S. will have spent more time in the virtual world than in nature.

The average American child now spends over eight hours in front of a screen each day. She emails, texts, and updates her status incessantly. He can name hundreds of corporate logos, but less than ten native plants. She aspires to have hundreds of online friends, most she may never meet in person.  He masters complicated situations presented in game after game, but often avoids simple person-to-person conversation. They are almost entirely out of contact with the world that, over millions of years of evolution, shaped human beings — the natural world.

But what are we missing when we are behind screens? And how will this impact our children, our society, and eventually, our planet? At a time when children play more behind screens than outside, PLAY AGAIN explores the changing balance between the virtual and natural worlds. Is our connection to nature disappearing down the digital rabbit hole?

The long-term consequences of this experiment on human development remain to be seen, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. By most accounts, this generation will face multiple crises — environmental, economic and social. Will this screen world — and its bevy of virtual experiences — have adequately prepared these “digital natives” to address the problems they’ll face, problems on whose resolution their own survival may depend?

This moving and humorous documentary follows six teenagers who, like the “average American child,” spend five to fifteen hours a day behind screens. PLAY AGAIN unplugs these teens and takes them on their first wilderness adventure – no electricity, no cell phone coverage, no virtual reality.