A Great Ormond Street psychologist on how to talk to children about the Queen's death

·7-min read
Photo credit: Christopher Hopefitch - Getty Images
Photo credit: Christopher Hopefitch - Getty Images

Unsettled. Overwhelmed. Discombobulated. If you’ve been surprised by the intensity of your emotions since hearing news of the Queen’s death, you’re in good company.

News of the 96-year-old’s death – which has brought to an end the longest reign in British history - has made newsreaders misty-eyed and caused people to flock to her residences in their thousands to pay their respects with flowers or simply to commune in their grief. But we aren’t the only ones feeling uneasy right now.

‘Children will also be picking up on the fact that something major has happened,’ says Jane Gilmour, Clinical Psychologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital and author of How to Have Incredible Conversations With Your Child.

‘We know that even very young infants can pick up on changes in atmosphere and emotion around them and so, depending on their age, they will be aware, to varying degrees, that something is amiss.’

What that reaction will look like, she explains, will vary from child to child – and may evolve as we move through the various events that define this carefully-choreographed period of mourning.

But if you’re a parent or a guardian to a young person, opening up a dialogue about what’s happening right now can be incredibly useful in helping them to better understand and process this confusing time.

Indeed, on a walk near Windsor Castle on Saturday, the new Princess of Wales, Kate, was heard telling mourners about four-year-old Prince Louis' reaction to the news of his great grandmother's death. She shared: 'My little Louis is just so sweet, he said: ''Mummy, at least she's with great grandpa".'

‘Our job as parents is to translate the world,’ adds Dr Gilmour. ‘That’s true in any case, but in this particular situation it’s important to be proactive and explain what has happened in clear, straight-forward language.’

Of course, any parent who’s ever been on the receiving end of a question that’s left them speechless will know that this is easier said than done. Here, Dr Gilmour breaks down what a constructive conversation with you child might look like - and why it's worth having.

Use language they can understand

If you think death is a difficult concept to wrap your head around as an adult, it’s even harder for a young child. And while pre-school age children can have a loose grasp of what it means to die, that understanding doesn’t happen overnight; instead, it’s a process.

That death is a confusing concept for children means it’s important to use language that’s clear and straight-forward, says Dr Gilmour. ‘Adults use phrases like “they’ve passed” or “we’ve lost someone” without really thinking, but young children can take things literally, and may think we’ve quite literally lost the queen and can’t find her.’

To avoid this, she suggests using phrases like ‘the queen has died’ and ‘it means her body has stopped working’, using examples in nature to illustrate the life cycle and help children understand that death is something that’s permanent.

Put big concepts into context

Of course, death isn’t the only difficult-to-understand concept that’s being discussed right now.

From TV and radio presenters declaring it ‘the end of an era’ to members of the public sharing their fears that life won’t ever be the same, the collective feeling that something has shifted is palpable.

‘But without context, these little phrases can take on unintended meaning that can be incredibly frightening to a child,’ adds Dr Gilmour.

She gives the example of referring to the Queen as having been ‘old’ or ‘elderly’ – a fact a child could interpret as meaning the death of their own elderly relative is imminent.

And yet, this needn’t be your cue to turn off the news. Instead, Dr Gilmour advocates ‘co-watching’; like a child’s answer to Laura Kuenssberg, your job is to add context and analysis where they need it.

Back to that ‘end of an era’ phrase: ‘You can say that it’s true that when someone dies things can change and that can be sad, but it isn’t something to be afraid of – it’s part of life.’

In addition to channelling your inner-Kuenssberg, Dr Gilmour recommends tuning into the phrases being thrown around – on the news; around the dinner table; at the school gate – and offering up context where you think your child may have heard something they might struggle to grasp.

Name the emotion, but don’t act it out

If the death of the Queen has thrown up some emotions that you’ve found surprising, know that this is common.

‘Events such as this one can trigger some strong emotions, even when there is no personal connection to the person who’s died,’ Dr Gilmour explains, adding that the death of a public figure can also trigger emotions from the death of a loved one within your own world to re-surface.

What’s more, she adds, you shouldn’t feel as though you need to conceal those feelings entirely from your child. And if you’re feeling sad, it’s ok to communicate that.

‘This is naming your emotions and not only is it good practise in families generally, but it’s a good way to encourage emotional literacy, which is good for mental health,’ she adds, with the caveat that it also matters how you say it.

‘If you find yourself feeling very distressed – perpetually tearful, for example – try and keep that experience outside of your child’s earshot, taking those feelings to a partner, a friend or a family member to work through instead,’ she adds.

‘It’s about managing your emotions in a way that allows [the child] to feel as though the world is a safe place. Because that’s one of the most important things you can offer as a parent. It’s naming the emotion without acting it out.’

Create a blueprint for talking about emotions

Whether you grew up in a family in which feelings went unarticulated or you’re a parent to a young child who hasn’t yet been exposed to a once-in-a-generation rolling news event such as this one, you may not yet have a blueprint for talking about difficult things with your child.

But while moments like these can be challenging for children (signs a young child might be struggling include a sudden change in behaviour, such as a period of bed wetting or disturbed sleep, notes Dr Gilmour) they can also provide you with an opportunity to role-model healthy emotional behaviour in your family.

‘When children are processing emotions, it’s normal to have a period of time when they feel a little unsettled and your job as a parent is to be alongside them, offering them a space to talk about their feelings,’ Dr Gilmour explains.

What this looks like will vary depending on the age of your child. And what’s right and appropriate for pre-school and school-age children (‘it’s about being honest, straight-forward and calm’, shares Dr Gilmour) will be different to the communication style you’ll need with teenagers (‘ask them how they feel and then give them the time and space to think about it and come back to you’).

‘But above all you’re giving them the message that you talk about difficult things and you get through them together. And if your child comes out of that experience knowing that this is what you do in your family, that’s a positive thing.’

Know that an imperfect conversation is better than no conversation

If talking about Hard Things with your child feels like yet another stick to beat yourself with, hear this: an imperfect conversation is better than no conversation. On this point, Dr Gilmour is unequivocal.

‘If you leave blank space, very often, children will fill it - and they may fill it with information that may not be true,’ she shares.

‘Nobody is perfect, but the simple act of showing that you want to connect with your child and talk about what’s happening right now is so much more important than getting it right.’

‘And while everyone might feel sad just now, the experience of growing your parent-child relationship may be an unexpected positive consequence.’ Done, as they say, is better than perfect.

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