I can distinctly remember being in my grade four classroom and sitting directly beside the window. Our school was very close to a fire and ambulance station, and every now and again the sirens would blare and an ambulance would zip by. I would look at the clock determined that any minute the office would be calling me down because my mother had died and I needed to go home. That fear for me was so raw and so very real. It was a few moments of debilitating, heart racing terror that the worst had happened. I was a child who struggled with separation anxiety, social anxiety and an extreme fear of death. Even now, 30 odd years later, when I hear from parents about children’s very real fear of death I understand how overwhelming that feeling can be.
Younger Children and the Fear of Death
Fear of death, otherwise known as thanatophobia, is a very real feeling/fear. It occurs in every culture, in every walk of life, and at any age. Young children fear studies are categorized into five different sections and the fear of death falls under death and danger. We expect our children to be happy and carefree. The last thing they need to worry about is dying–themselves or their loved ones. The world today is such a very different place and it is no doubt that a very real fear is brewing with many children.
Studies have shown that children as young as four exhibit signs of thanatophobia. In younger children the experts use what is called the Koala Fear Questionnaire (KFQ). The KFQ is a pictorial form of survey so that young children can understand the questions. Can you imagine – children as young as four are in fact fearful of death? That is a huge burden for such a young mind.
Why is Death Difficult to Understand?
Death is a very difficult thing to understand for children. Their young minds are trying so hard to understand a very overwhelming world. Children lack the experience and the knowledge needed to perceive the world in a rationale way. Young children also lack the concept of time, so in their minds when a child’s parent leaves the room there is an absence and the parent is gone, so they are dead.
What Happens When your Child is Fearful of Death?
- School Refusal – they are worried that mom or dad or caregiver will die while they are absent
- Sleep Refusal – they are worried that something will happen to someone in the middle of the night
- Separation Anxiety – they are worried that if mom or dad leaves the room they will die
For anxious children who have a tendency to worry about everything around them, it is understandable how their minds would race towards the worst case scenario – death. Environmental exposure is another way that the fear is exacerbated, whether by a traumatic personal event (death in the family), seeing a traumatic event either in real life or on television/video game, or an illness experienced by a close family member or loved one.
It is common for young children to start to understand and question death. The way we address their fears will determine the child’s ability to cope. As children mature they will come to understand the concept and permanency of dying.
A study of 90 children, aged 4–8, conducted by Virginia Slaughter and Maya Griffiths showed that a more mature understanding of the biological concept of death was correlated to a decreased fear of death. This indicates that it is helpful to teach children about death (in a biological sense), in order to alleviate the fear.
Tips to Remember When Addressing the Fear of Death
- The feeling of fear is very real – never tell the child that their feelings are silly or unfounded.
- If your child has verbalized it then there is something that needs to be addressed. Child led conversations will allow for the child to understand death and put it into a perspective that the child can relate to.
- Remember kids are their own little monitors, they ask for information when they are ready to receive it. Don’t bombard them with too much all at once.
- If the fear is impacting everyday life or has continued for more than six months, get some help.
- Focus on the positives. Death is a fact of life. There is nothing positive about worrying or obsessing about when it might happen.
- Shift the conversation around to the here and now and put the focus on things that are happening right now that are fantastic. Life is full of wonder and magic.
Slaughter, V. & Griffiths, M. (2007). Death Understanding and Fear of Death in Young Children. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 12 (4) pg 525-535, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_anxiety_(psychology)