Sometimes it’s the death of a bird in the yard, or the loss of a grandparent. When a child first becomes aware of death, parents are faced with the uncomfortable conversation about what happens when we die.

Dr. Chang Su-Russell researched how parents make the decision to discuss or avoid the topic. After surveying and conducting in-depth interviews with parents of children ages 3 to 6, she identified four factors that influenced the decision. Her study has expanded to include how parents make decisions about other challenging topics, including race, racism, discrimination, and gender. The results of her research on how parents approach difficult subjects are under peer review in preparation for publication.

Su-Russell earned her Ph.D. from the Department of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri. She joined Illinois State in 2018 as an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Appears In

In the following Q&A, she talks about her research and the challenges faced by parents when having difficult conversations with their children.

At what age does a child begin to understand that death is universal and permanent?

Children start asking questions at age 3, and between 3 and 5 learn about their body and how it operates (breathing, eating, etc.). By age 5, children’s understanding of universality and finality grows, and they usually understand biological causes of death. By age 6, children understand that old age is not the only cause
for death.

Nineteen out of 24 children had asked questions about death. All but one had been exposed to deaths, from movie characters to family pets, extended families to acquaintances. Some parents felt the need to address their questions or to provide explanations about what happened, while others found it hard to process their own emotions and grief. Sixteen out of 24 parents explained death in a way that was guided by their religious beliefs, usually by discussing topics like heaven.

A child’s first experience with death may be a pet, or an animated character in a film. Is that an ideal time to bring it up, or should you wait for them to ask?

Each family is so different regarding their beliefs and life experiences. It can be very challenging and emotionally taxing to engage a young child in such a difficult conversation. But not having such conversations might confuse them too. For example, children may develop misconceptions of death as being something that only happens to the elderly, or that is reversible. When their parents say, “I am getting old,” it worries the young child because old and death are highly associated in their mind.

Understanding the causes of death and knowing the universality of deaths might be helpful to clarify these myths as well as socializing children to a higher level of cognitive understanding of their life and their body.

Your study found four factors that influenced parents when it came to navigating difficult conversations, from death to racism. What are those?

For discussing death and dying, the following factors guided parents: their cultural and personal beliefs; parents’ death literacy, which is their past experiences with death and tools to explain death and help process emotions; the child’s exposure to death; and the parent’s knowledge of child development. Parents are conscious of the child’s ability to comprehend their observations of death as well as the limited ability to fully understand the death, the causes of death, and what happens after someone is dead.

For discussing race and racism, parents found it challenging, complicated, uncomfortable, and were sometimes unsure of their responses. They provided varying levels of explanations of what race is, which varied from geographic locations, cultural differences, characters versus the implications of skin colors. Not all parents have had discussions about race openly and directly, yet many were preparing to engage in such conversations. Parents who have started conversations said they were aware of their children’s diverse exposure to peers and the community and their child’s developmental levels.

Variability in parents’ responses were influenced by their parenting beliefs and racial socialization goals, their levels of reflections of parenting practices, and access to resources, all of which were influenced by their personal experiences in childhood, current personal life, and their occupational experiences-interactions with colleagues and families.

A majority of respondents said their religious beliefs were a source of comfort when discussing death. Heaven was explained as a beautiful place where the deceased was happy. But can’t that be frightening too?

Religion is one of the ways that parents use to explain what death is and what happens when someone dies. However, younger children comprehend biological causes and explanations of death more easily than more abstract concepts sometimes prevalent in religious traditions.
Starting at age 6, children tend to have a more sophisticated understanding of death, and might better understand that heaven is not someplace you can easily travel to and return from. Three- to five-year-olds, however, would cognitively struggle with this.

One of the participants was a mother who tried avoiding discussing the biological causes of death. Instead, she used religious explanations. When this mom said the family member was at home with Jesus, this resulted in confusion and scary feelings. Her child asked, “Do we have to go home? I don’t want to go home.” This mom shared that her child was scared to go to church because the child did not want God to take her home.

Some parents don’t want to talk about death or race, believing it protects the child’s innocence. What would you advise?

Parents know their children best. Parents all shared that they let their children take the lead by bringing up conversations regarding death or race, and openly responding to any questions. They aim for a balance between protecting innocence as well as socializing them with socioemotional competencies. They are sensitive to cues. If their child has been worried and can’t fall asleep because of a topic, parents wouldn’t force them to have a conversation.

The studies were not meant to make parents feel guilty for not having conversations early, but to elicit parents’ experiences and thought processes in such decision making. Even though children as young as 3 can have a basic understanding of death and may start asking questions about race, it does not necessarily mean that every 3-year-old is at the same cognitive developmental level. In addition, family backgrounds and beliefs, the experiences each family has, the demographic characteristics of schools and community, and what is on media and social media, all these factors could enhance or impede parents’ engagement with their children on challenging conversations.

How has a deadly global pandemic changed the conversation?

The children see the masks; they see the numbers; there are a lot of visualizations. There were definitely more conversations. March 2020 was a turning point. Families expressed they went through multiple layers of ambiguous loss.

Though not all families exposed their children to news regarding the pandemic or the death toll, all explained in length the mitigation measures to take for self-protection and for protecting others. Parents aimed to maintain a balance between sheltering children to avoid fear- or anxiety-induced stress and socializing their child with self-protection skills and empathy.

What was the most challenging part of these interviews?

Some parents cried. It’s hard to be a parent and that’s the sentiment shared by all. All topics, especially death and sometimes race, are very triggering and emotionally evocative.

Another challenge is that there is so much to be done and I can sense the need in our local community. These parents wanted to know the findings of my research and wanted to form a network to seek and share resources when they encounter challenging questions. As a parent raising a biracial toddler, I definitely sense the struggles and the immense need for solidarity with intellectual and emotional support from other parents.