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Navigating Discussions of Death with Young Children: Variable Strategies of Protection

Rebecca Gregory (Child Life Specialist, Chicago, Illinois)
Chang Su-Russell (Illinois State University)
Luke T. Russell (Illinois State University)
Carley Barrett (Certified Child Life Specialist, St. George Regional Hospital)

Facing Death: Familial Responses to Illness and Death

ISBN: 978-1-80382-264-8, eISBN: 978-1-80382-263-1

Publication date: 16 June 2022


Purpose: Death is a universal inevitability of life, though parents and adults often report difficulty or concerns about discussing the topic with children. This investigation reports on how parents of very young children (ages 3–6) have or would discuss death with their child, and what parents consider in navigating such discussions.

Methodology: In-depth interviews were conducted with parents (N = 24) of very young children (ages 3–6) to develop a grounded theory of parents actual and anticipated approaches to discussing death with children.

Findings: Parents generally described either seeking to protect children’s “innocence” by avoiding or limiting conversations of death, or, seeking to promote children’s socioemotional competence in confronting the complexities of death through more extensive discussions. We identified four factors we hypothesize may influence parents intended strategies for navigating these approaches: (1) parents’ past and current experiences related to death, (2) children’s exposure to deaths, (3) cultural and personal beliefs about death, and (4) parents’ knowledge and awareness of their child’s cognitive competences. While protection of children’s “innocence” and cultivation of children’s socioemotional competences are not opposing goals, these concepts appeared to be situated on a continuum.

Originality/Value: Given the prevalence of death in contemporary media, and an ongoing global pandemic, young children’s exposure to death will remain heightened for the foreseeable future. Family scholars and practitioners would be wise to prepare to assist families and children thoughtfully and compassionately. We further explore tools, resources, and strategies parents and professionals have found helpful in navigating these discussions.



Gregory, R., Su-Russell, C., Russell, L.T. and Barrett, C. (2022), "Navigating Discussions of Death with Young Children: Variable Strategies of Protection", Scott, C.L., Williams, H.M. and Wilder, S. (Ed.) Facing Death: Familial Responses to Illness and Death (Contemporary Perspectives in Family Research, Vol. 19), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 37-60.



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