Easing worries around death with a child

A fear of death and of parents dying is surprisingly common among four to eight-year-olds. 

If it has been an issue for six months, it can be diagnosed a phobia — thanatophobia.

Fear of a parent dying directly threatens a child’s need for protection and security, explains Joanna Fortune, clinical psychotherapist and director of Solamh Parent-Child Relationship Clinic.

She says a phobia can emerge without cause, but fear may also arise if the child comes across death. “If a classmate’s parents dies, the child may fear their parent will too.”

For four to eight-year-olds, magical thinking is developmentally normal and a child may believe death of someone close is in their power — if they think someone can die, they will, and that they can also stop someone dying.

To defend against such beliefs, children may adopt certain rituals and superstitions, says Fortune. The child might start being afraid to go to sleep for example. The language we use about death doesn’t help.

“Saying ‘Grandma died peacefully in her sleep’ can be comforting to adults but terrifying to children. Young children can be literal in their thinking and believe ‘I/Mum/Dad might go to sleep and not wake up too’.”

Fortune advises using clear, unambiguous language when discussing death with children — ‘Grandma was very sick, the doctors worked hard to make her better but they weren’t able to and she died’. Explain this is a different ‘sick’ than when we get a cold, cough or tummy upset.

If parents aren’t direct, children fill knowledge gaps with their imagination, which can be bigger than reality. “There’s every chance they’ll think ‘If I’d been a good girl, Grandma wouldn’t have died’.” Avoid dismissing fears by saying ‘don’t worry — I’m not going to die’. You don’t know that and children know you don’t

When talking about feelings with children, Fortune talks about the happy part, the sad part and so on — “so children understand no one feeling defines them but that we all have lots of feelings and fear is like any other — it comes and goes and it’s OK to feel scared sometimes”.

For natural worriers, Fortune recommends a 10-minute daily ‘worry window’. “Giving children permission to speak their worries means they won’t fester. When the 10 minutes are up, shift conversation to the here and now — to all the fun things that are happening now.”

TOP TIPS

* Death is a difficult topic to discuss — don’t complicate it with language. Speak in clear, unambiguous terms.

* If ‘heaven’ fits with your beliefs, having a location for the dead person can comfort children.

* Find books that encourage children to talk about feelings like Judith Kerr’s Goodbye Mog, about the death of a beloved cat.

* If concerned about a phobia, talk to your GP, who may refer child for further help.


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