A Child’s Understanding of Death

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Kids certainly say the darnedest things. But what if your preschooler tells you she wants to kill someone? I was recently asked by a mother if she should be concerned that her four-year-old daughter said after a play date that she wanted to kill her playmate. The mother was surprised by such a shocking statement and wondered if it is normal for a child to talk in such a way.
In my opinion, the best way to approach this situation is first to look at the age and developmental stage of the child. Four-year-olds are in the pre-operational stage of cognitive development, which means that their thinking is concrete rather than abstract. This makes their understanding of the concept of death something temporary, such as going to sleep or departing on a trip. In fact, the majority of research studies have found that not until age seven do most children begin to form an adult-like understanding of the concept of death: namely, that death is universal and irreversible, and that it has various causes. It is therefore critical to acknowledge this difference and not to equate a young child’s perception of death with that of an adult. This allows us to understand why a healthy four-year-old may tell her mother that she wants to kill a friend who has annoyed her. It actually makes perfect sense that she would wish for her friend to temporarily go away so that she could have all the toys to herself or avoid having to deal with her friend’s adverse behaviour.
As well, even though our children may not show it, as parents we know that they are incredible listeners, and what they hear is likely to be repeated. I am the first to confess that I may have in a joking manner threatened to kill my husband for repeatedly using my bath towel. As such, it would hardly surprise me to hear my kids repeating this threat.
Having said that, I would like to make a distinction between the example I have illustrated and a child who is repeatedly threatening to kill someone, including him- or herself. This is especially critical if we are looking at a more cognitively developed older child. There are too many factors to account for here, and, as such, I would highly recommend that if your child has told you he or she wants to die, or you know that he or she is having suicidal thoughts, immediately consult with a your child’s doctor or a mental health professional.

kathyewaA Child’s Understanding of Death
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Modelling Starts With an Honest Self-Awareness

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An invaluable amount of what a child learns every day is through what parents inadvertently model in daily mundane moments. I am not talking about when you sit down with your 10-year-old to discuss the impact of cyber-bullying, or when you allocate special time to play phonics cards with your four-year-old or even the evening story time you share with your child, bonding at the end of a long day. What I am referring to are the everyday moments that parents so often don’t pay much attention to.

Well, the small things do add up, and so do all of those mundane moments. These lead to some of the greatest impacts on how children see their parents and eventually mirror parental behaviours. Parents all too often view their children’s problems as being directly or indirectly caused by factors outside of the family, such as friends, TV, music videos, schools or even drugs and alcohol. I am not here to tell you that parents are always a direct cause of their children’s problems. Factors such as temperament and mental illness certainly play a significant role in children’s behaviour, and parental modelling is not the only contributing factor to problems in children. The psychology of human behaviour is multifaceted and often complicated; however, more often than not, parents need to be brave and open to accepting that sometimes the apple does not fall all that far from the tree.

kathyewaModelling Starts With an Honest Self-Awareness
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How we interact with our children when emotions run hot is critical!

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As parents, our initial—and perhaps instinctual—reaction to our children’s negative emotions is to get rid of them and replace them with positive ones. This may be due to numerous reasons, including our own childhood experiences, where we learned that negative feelings are a sign of weakness, or our deep desire to always see our children happy. As parents, we want what’s best for our children, and many of us would instinctively say that our ultimate parenting goal is to raise a happy and well-adjusted child. Therefore, it makes sense that we may feel very uneasy when our children are upset. We may want to drop everything, run to their side, and tell them that it’s okay and that mommy or daddy will make them feel better. In some cases, we may feel desperately inclined to go to extremes by offering to purchase a toy or take a trip to a favourite restaurant in hopes of quickly extinguishing that terrible negativity our children are feeling. As a matter of fact, it may seem completely counterintuitive to encourage our children to sit with and explore their negative feelings rather than rescue them from those feelings.

kathyewaHow we interact with our children when emotions run hot is critical!
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