As shocking as it is to adults when a celebrity or other well-known figure dies suddenly, such as the tragic passing of Glee actor Cory Monteith on Saturday, it can have a huge impact on children. Talking to our kids who may be fans of the deceased celebrity is a sensitive topic, and it can be a difficult challenge for parents.
Anthony Wold, a child psychologist, told the Globe and Mail that when discussing a celebrity’s untimely death, parents should create a dialogue by asking open-ended questions. This is critical, according to Wolf, because different children react in different ways. He notes, “...the parent would basically say, ‘You maybe heard the news that [Mr. Monteith] died last night, and that’s a really sad, sad thing to have happen. And then say, ‘What do you think about it?’
Dr. Wolf suggests parents say something like “Maybe it makes you feel sad, maybe it makes you feel a little upset,” acknowledging that each child is going to have different reactions to the incident.
According to the National Institutes of Health publication How to Deal With Death, children are aware of the general concept of death at a very young age. Parents can encourage their communication by showing interest in and respect for what they say. We can also make it easier for them to talk to us if we are open, honest, and comfortable with our own feelings about death.
Dr. Christopher Schneider, assistant professor of sociology at the University of B.C. Okanagan, said that as online tributes pour in for Monteith over social media, particularly on Twitter, parents should provide context. Although Dr. Schneider points out that celebrity deaths happen in every generation, he says what’s different with Monteith’s death in the age of social media is that young people are now bombarded with so much information, misinformation, and speculation, that this information overload can lead to kids oversimplifying extremely complex issues such as substance abuse, addiction, and even death.
Schneider says, “When you look at something like Twitter, 140 characters, or a Facebook post, generally speaking we don’t find people posting lengthy narratives or manifestos on their Facebook page,” adding, “So what this does is sort of confine the space in which we can then seek to understand or present or represent what it is that happened.”
Dr. Wolf says that it’s important for parents to point out the differences between the real-life actor and the onscreen character portrayed by the celebrity. As an example, Dr. Wolf suggests talking about the celebrity's real life. “It’s sad because they liked him on the show... but it’s also sad because of his friends and family.”
It’s also important for parents to tailor their approach to the age and maturity level of their child.
According to the NIH, it’s important to try to find brief, simple, and age appropriate answers to children's questions. Parents should strive to find understandable answers which do not overwhelm them with too many words. With older kids, on the other hand, it may be necessary to acknowledge the inevitable questions and speculation surrounding why and how the celebrity died.
Dr. Shimi Kang, a psychiatrist and author based in Vancouver, B.C, told the Globe and Mail that even if substance abuse is ultimately not a factor in a celebrity death, it can still be an opportunity to talk to kids about addiction. She says, “The starting point is that obviously this could happen to anybody.”
Kang says the message, “What you see on the outside doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s going on the inside,” is particularly important for youth in the era of social media where they are constantly being bombarded with images of young people drinking, partying, or participating in sexually suggestive situations. “A lot of the time young people just feel that that is real life, and of course people don’t put their difficulties or hardships — doing homework, having dinner with their parents — (online)...Social media really reinforces the idea of an external image.”
Kang adds that Monteith was a rare example of someone who spoke publicly about his struggle with addiction. “One of the things kids today aren’t hearing enough of is vulnerability... and I think Cory’s story is an amazing story because he did show vulnerability and he did kind of own up and he was doing the right things.”
In terms of explaining why certain tragedies happen, the NIH says that it’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers. “While not all our answers may be comforting, we can share what we truly believe,” he says. “Where we have doubts, an honest, ‘I just don't know the answer to that one,’ may be more comforting than an explanation that we do not quite believe.”