Q: My uncle passed away recently and our family attended the funeral. This was my kids' (ages 2 and 4) first real experience with death, and I wasn't sure how to explain it to them. What's the best way to handle this subject with young children?
Jim: Whether it's the loss of a family member or news about another terrorist attack, our kids are going to be confronted with death. Author Candy Arrington has developed some great tips to help kids navigate the grieving process:
1) Teach your kids that death is a part of life. We often avoid this subject to protect our children. But we can use everyday occurrences -- wilting flowers, changing seasons, even the death of a pet -- to help them understand the reality.
2) Be honest, and don't delay sharing the news. Say "Uncle Tommy died last night," not "He's gone away" or "He went to sleep." These phrases lead to confusion and might even cause a child to wonder if he'll die when he goes to sleep!
3) Be ready to answer questions. Some kids are satisfied with the facts, but others will want to know more. Answer to the best of your ability.
4) Recognize your children's fears. Death can be a scary concept. We need to comfort and reassure our children at every opportunity.
5) Don't be afraid to let your kids see you grieve. It's OK to cry in front of them. They need to know that emotional pain is part of losing a loved one.
6) Finally, cherish the memories. Look through photo albums and tell fun stories from the past about your departed loved one.
When death occurs, kids will take their cues from their parents and model their reactions accordingly. It's much better for their emotional and spiritual health to talk about it openly than to sweep it under the rug.
Q: Our daughter is an only child. Due to medical reasons we cannot have any other children. Is there anything we can do to promote social skills, since she will not have siblings to interact with?
Juli: As frustrating as it can be to grow up with siblings (I have five!), they also provide a natural way to learn the basics of human interaction, including sharing, conflict resolution and communication. As an only child, your daughter does not have this automatically built into her home environment. However, there are a few things you can do to intentionally create opportunities for her to build peer relationships.
If you live near extended family, take advantage of that. Cousins can become almost as close as siblings. If there are no children in your family living locally, work hard to develop strong relationships with a few other families who have kids around your daughter's age. Choose families who have a similar philosophy of parenting and morality. Even in the midst of a handful of siblings, I also grew up with a best friend who was like a sister to me. We were constantly over at each other's house. Your daughter will also get exposure to other kids through school, playgroups and extracurricular activities.
The most important thing to remember in raising an only child is to maintain the generational boundary. It is easy to slide into treating an only child as a mini adult. With just three of you at home, the temptation is to become "the three musketeers" in making decisions and doing everything together. As much as you love her, she is not part of your marital unit. You are adults and she is a child. Be intentional about keeping it that way.
Dr. Juli Slattery is a licensed psychologist, co-host of Focus on the Family, author of several books, and a wife and mother of three.
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