The first time a child starts asking about death, she may still be very young. It could be triggered by a death in the family, a neighbor or friend’s death, or an end-of-life scene in their favorite cartoon series. Adults often find it difficult to discuss the topic with the children and don’t always know how to respond. But, as parents, it is our duty to answer their queries as fully, calmly, and completely as possible.
So how do you talk to kids about death? Try using a Disney movie.
From Simba losing his father — and avenging that murder — in The Lion King, to Carl losing his wife at the beginning of Up, Mowgli being an orphan in The Jungle Book, and the ever-popular Anna and Elsa’s parents dying in Frozen, death is a common trope in the most popular Disney and Pixar movies. Kids watch these films over and over, so in 2017 two researchers investigated if these stories could work as a jumping off point to discuss the topic.
Kelly Tenzek, a clinical assistant professor at the University at Buffalo’s Department of Communication, and Bonnie Nickels, visiting lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, analyzed 71 death scenes in 57 Disney and Pixar movies. Their study revealed that these scenes could provide critical opportunities to start discussions about death and the process of dying.
“These films can be used as conversation starters for difficult and what are oftentimes taboo topics like death and dying,” Tenzek said in an interview. “These are important conversations to have with children, but waiting until the end of life is way too late and can lead to a poor end-of-life experience.” She added, “We believe that Disney and Pixar films are popular and accessible for children and adults so that a difficult conversation can begin in a less threatening way earlier in life.”
Know What Is Appropriate for the Child
Both the researchers and other experts note that parents must be thoughtful when approaching these conversations.
“Any discussion with children must be age appropriate and culturally sensitive,” says Samir Parikh, Director, Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Fortis Healthcare. In an interview with Parentology, he added, “stories, pictures, and hand puppets have traditionally been part of starting discussions with children. So, why not movies”?
While these movies can be used to initiate the conversation, Samir adds, “care must be taken to treat each child uniquely and discussion must be according to the age group.” For example, a toddler might only understand something is good or bad, primary school students may just understand someone they care about has gone away and will never come back, but high school-aged children would understand the concept of death and how it impacts people around them.
The researchers noted that not all Disney or Pixar deaths are realistic, but that offers another opportunity for discussion — such as helping young viewers understand the difference between fiction and real life. Also watching how characters respond to death can be helpful for discussion.
“How the characters portray their responses to dying can help children understand the nature of expressing emotion,”
Tenzek said. “Big Hero 6 (2014) and Inside Out (2015) specifically address emotional responses to death and dying which were not present in earlier films.”
Adults often shield children from discussions about death because it’s uncomfortable, or because we want to protect them from unpleasant topics. However, death is a fact of life, and children will face it sooner or later. Using these popular, kid-friendly movies as a positive starting point for discussion can give them the tools to handle that reality in a more positive light.