Ask An Expert / Anxiety

My husband and I are beginning to worry about our 3-year-old daughter’s preoccupation with death. How can we answer her questions?

Keep your responses simple and admit that you don't have all the answers

Clark Goldstein, PhD

My husband and I are beginning to worry about our 3-1/2-year-old daughter's preoccupation with death. When we talk about people, her standard question is, "Did they die?" She wants to know what happens when someone dies — will they come back? She also questions me daily about when I will die. How can we handle these questions? We understand that death is a part of life, but we're having trouble answering these questions without scaring her or causing her anxiety.

I’m sorry that your daughter has been so preoccupied. It would be helpful to know if she appears more scared or curious when she asking these questions.

Based on what you’ve written, I suggest that you speak with her during a time when she is not anxious and try to answer her questions honestly in an age-appropriate way that is consistent with your family’s values. For instance, if your family believes that there is something eternal in us, you can tell her that at some point, a person’s body stops working and the soul lives on (or goes somewhere else). If she has more detailed questions to which you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to tell her that you don’t know.

If you are comfortable with the topic and are able to model your comfort with not having all the answers, at being unsure, then you can help your daughter learn that it’s okay to be unsure. If, on the other hand, you are uncomfortable with the conversation, you’re more likely to inadvertently reinforce the idea that the topic is something to be afraid of.

In terms of talking about your own death, avoid promising her that you will live to a particular age. What you can do is share that you take care of yourself and you are planning to live a long life.

If the frequent asking continues, you may wish to limit your responses to short answers in a matter-of-fact and calm tone, and then refrain from responding to the question being repeated. Although this may sound odd to you, it actually might help your daughter move off the topic if she’s come to associate your repeated answers with a reduction in anxiety she’s feeling. If the behaviors still persist, you may wish to consult with a competent cognitive behavioral therapist for more support. You can find a list of CBT therapists here.