Fear of Death in Children
SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) has been an absolute nightmare for all of us. This pandemic has derailed our work life, home life, and pastimes. It has tested our relationships and friendships, has accosted our faith, challenged our sense of security, and highlighted our fragile mortality. It has threatened our goals, hopes, and dreams and has accentuated just how dangerous a lack of leadership can be in a nation of 330 million people.
The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly taken a toll on adults– but what about the toll it’s taken on our children?
Childhood is exciting, explorative, and magical. Conversely, childhood can also be scary, intimidating, and confusing. As parents, it’s our job to make them feel safe and secure while simultaneously allowing them to discover and engage in our world. Part of that discovery includes encountering death.
Believe it or not, fear of death, is common among children – In fact, they will experience anxiety around death at some point throughout their childhood. Research regarding age ranges vary slightly, but we know that children anywhere between the ages of 4 to 7-years old are more susceptible to the fear of death.
However, early-age fear of death begs the question: What do children understand about death?
According to Bates & Kearny, children’s more general understanding of death can be broken down into four primary concepts: universality (all living things die), irreversibility (once dead, dead forever), non-functionality (all functions of the body stop), and causality (what causes death).
Partial understanding of universality, irreversibility, and non-functionality usually develops between the ages of 5 and 7 years, but a more complete understanding of death concepts, including causality, is not generally seen until around age 10 (Bates & Kearney, 2015).
When asked about the causes of death, 5 – 6-year-olds most often cite non-natural causes (e.g., violence), 8 – 9-year-olds most often cite natural causes (e.g., illness), and 11 – 12-year-olds most often cite spiritual causes (e.g., it being one’s time) (Bates & Kearney, 2015).
Unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we may notice that our children’s curiosity and fear about death has increased.
Why is this? Whether we realize it or not, children are astute and intelligent. Children notice the slightest disruption to their routines and schedules, which has been quite apparent in the last five months. More so, children listen carefully to the conversations around them – and sadly, if they’ve been listening to any of our discussions since March, they’ve most likely heard some terrifying stuff.
Even if they’re not quite old enough to understand our spoken words, they recognize that their schedules, social lives, and the world around them have changed. They see everyone wearing masks, hear the concerned tone in our voices, and have noticed that work and school routines are unfamiliar. Furthermore, they may have had to face death head-on if they’ve lost a loved one to COVID-19.
So, what do you do if your child is suffering from death anxiety?
Try implementing the following tips:
1. Look for the signs of unusually high levels of anxiety in your child.
Anxiety looks different on everyone. However, a few symptoms that could suggest your child is suffering from anxiety are things like, suffering from constant stomach aches or headaches, having severe separation anxiety, difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, frequent nightmares, and being unusually fearful of germs or becoming sick. Keep in mind that every child is different, so it’s always best to check with your pediatrician before jumping to conclusions.
2. Take care of your mental health.
Mental health among all populations has been greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, so it may be possible that you and your spouse have increased anxiety levels – and rightfully so. However, anxiety, especially within family systems, tends to be contagious, so your children may be feeding off your worries and fears. Do what you can to keep this in check around your children – and if you can’t, there is no shame in seeking professional help to manage your anxiety better.
3. Don’t use confusing language.
Using phrases like, “they passed away” or “they’re no longer with us” or “they’ve gone to Heaven” is much more confusing than, “he got very sick, and we weren’t able to make him better.” Interestingly, in a study of 90 children aged four to eight at the University of Queensland in Australia, Slaughter & Griffiths showed that discussing death and dying in biological rather than abstract terms correlated to a decreased fear of death in children (Slaughter V, Griffiths, 2007).
4. Set aside, “worry time.”
Allow your children to express their fears and concerns and ask as many questions as they’d like regarding the pandemic and death in general – however, put a cap on it; This is an activity that works for adults as well. The key here is to teach your child how to compartmentalize anxieties and fears.
5. If all else fails, get your child professional help and support.
Sometimes as parents, our job is to know our limitations. If you see that your child is continuing to struggle with the fear of death, reach out to a licensed professional counselor.
At The Hellenic Therapy Center, 567 Park Avenue, we are offering Zoom, Phone or FaceTime sessions. Call us at 908-322-0112 or visit us at www.hellenictherapy.com