In an unexpected observation of kids movies recently, I was shocked at the amount of times they said the words: death, die, and even suicide. Now I have a particularly careful ear these days as I listen as a mom and an LCSW. I am curious about the impact of this type of language on children who are trying to grasp the complex idea of death. Parents and professionals care use this to their benefit if they are quick on their feet and open to the conversations.
Why this hits close to home
Nearly a year ago, my little one lost their co-mother to suicide. She was a loving person and she also struggled deeply with Bi-polar Disorder and PTSD. Now with this event, something I never imagined helping a 3 year old cope through this tragedy, coping through the loss of a parent, and how many times death and dying pop up in everyday life. One thing I do know, Toddlers understand way more than we give them credit for. They read the room, they connect words with emotions of the adults around them, and they take cues from their parents when processing big events.
Now a couple years ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about a children’s movie saying those words so often. Honestly, I don’t think it even would have registered how those words might stir up thoughts and emotions in a little one. I didn’t think they would catch those things or that they paid much attention. These movies have been using death and dying flippantly for as long as I can remember. Not all of them are bad, some movies have done a great job of helping little ones identify with the main character who also lost a parent or close family member.
Wording in Children’s Movies
“The Lion King” created a really great moment that allowed my little one and I to have a moment to talk about how the feelings Simba was feeling and moreover, about how there was nothing he could have done to save his father and it wasn’t his fault. These types of movies are great tools to start conversations.
One of our recent favorites has been “Moana”, there are a lot of great lessons to be learned through this movie. We have used it to talk about culture and perseverance.
There are some references to “suicide mission” and “kill myself”. Now in context, Maui is not saying to kill yourself or go on a suicide mission. He is saying he doesn’t want to do those things. Those words are a little harder to hear coming from a 3 year old who likes to quote movies. “Moana” is not the only movie, the word suicide is also said in “Toy Story” and several others.
My little guy does not know any specifics about his Mama’s death. I try to limit the use of the word suicide, simply to protect him at this point. There is so such negative connotation and I don’t want him to be treated differently at preschool. On a side not, I have real worry that someone may explain it to him before I am ready to discuss in a way that is age appropriate. We have to roll with it as it comes though. For now, it’s not age appropriate and he hasn’t gotten to a place in his understanding where he has asked. I am a firm believer in taking your child’s lead and there is no need in oversharing something they aren’t ready to process.
Tips for Parents and Professionals:
- Let kids take the lead. Don’t overshare.
- Use movies, videos, and books as conversations starters. Sometimes using a proxy (character) can make it easier for kids to talk about what they might be feeling.
- If you don’t know what to say, ask kids if you can think about it and get back to them.
- Check in with your child. If they have that look in their face when you are watching something, ask them what they think the character is thinking or feeling. You can also ask them if they ever feel this way.
- Be quick on your feet. Death, Dying, and even suicide can come up in unexpected places. Be ready to roll with your child because each child needs something different.
- Take a deep breath and know that you cannot filter the world for the kiddo. Things come up unexpectedly, try not to make a big deal. Children can feel your tone and comfort with a topic. They may adopt those, especially unhealthy ones.
If you know a child is struggling to cope with grief and loss, Judi’s House is a great resource for families and professionals.