It’s common for children to experience anxiety about death, especially if they are coping with the loss of a loved one or struggling with separation anxiety.
Death anxiety often manifests as an intense fear, causing both mental and physical symptoms in children. It can be really debilitating for your child.
Understanding the factors that contribute to death anxiety in children can help you effectively address your child’s fear. I’m a child psychologist and I’m going to talk you through my approach.
Key Takeaways From This Article
- Open communication is important to address your child’s fear of death.
- Recognise your child’s specific symptoms of anxiety about death as this will guide you towards an action plan.
- Seek professional help if your child’s anxiety becomes overwhelming.
Death Anxiety in Children
Death Anxiety in Children of Different Age Groups
Death anxiety can affect children of all ages, but it’s important to understand how it can impact different age groups.
For young children, their limited understanding of the concept of death may make it difficult for them to understand the permanence of death. If someone dies, they may feel convinced that the person will return.
As children grow older and can grasp what death means, their anxiety concerning the loss of family members or their own mortality may change and deepen.
In my experience this often happens at around the age of eight or nine. Children may become more clingy or anxious, or begin to over-think and worry about dangers. This is normally a phase which can last a few months or more than a year.
In adolescence, your teenager might become more existential and start contemplating deeper questions about life and death.
For example, is the quality of life more important than its length?
The more you can have these open debates with your teen, the better they will be able to process such thoughts and form their own beliefs about death which they are comfortable with.
Cognitive Development and Anxiety About Death
Your child’s cognitive development plays a significant role in how they perceive death, and the anxiety they may experience because of it.
As I have already mentioned, children aged roughly five and under tend to struggle to understand the concept of death, often believing that it is temporary or reversible. As their cognitive abilities progress, your child’s understanding of death will become more concrete and leads to the awareness that it’s an inevitable aspect of life.
The concrete understanding can then, as your child moves towards adulthood, lead to more abstract thinking and exploration of different beliefs and faiths.
Death is one of the hardest facts of life for anyone to accept. So it’s not surprising that processing the idea can cause anxiety. And do we ever fully accept and come to terms with the idea of death? Perhaps not.
To help alleviate your child’s anxiety, it’s important to provide age-appropriate information and explanations about death, whether they have experienced it or not. It’s important to…
- Try to use concrete language. For example, a pet has died rather than has “gone to sleep”. Using alternative language can be confusing.
- Don’t sugar coat it. It’s important to be honest, and ideally open-minded too. For example, you might not feel very hopeful about the possibility of life after death. You might tell your child that some people believe we have another life after death, whereas others believe we only have this one life.
- Give them time. Talking about death isn’t a “one and done” occurrence. It’s helpful if your child feels able to ask questions or bring up the topic at frequent intervals, so that they know it’s not a discussion you shy away from.
Factors Contributing to Death Anxiety in Children
Several factors can influence the level of death anxiety experienced by children. Some of these include:
- Exposure to death: Children who have experienced the loss of family members or witnessed death in some form are more likely to develop death anxiety. If you have lost someone, it’s natural to fear losing others too. However, I also see many children in my clinic who are anxious about death simply because it is an unknown and something they have never experienced. Fear of the unknown can be very scary.
- Parent’s anxiety: If you, as a parent, also have death anxiety, your child may (consciously or subconsciously) pick up on your concerns and manifest similar fears.
- Cultural influences: The culture and beliefs your family holds about death can impact how your children view and process the idea of mortality.
- Traumatic events: Witnessing or experiencing traumatic events, such as accidents or life-threatening illnesses, may trigger death anxiety in some children. Even though the event may have been rare, in your child’s mind it may naturally leave them feeling that death is now more likely for them or others.
Which of these factors might be contributing to your child’s anxiety about death?
Understanding this will help you figure out which steps to take to support them in coping with their fears.
Over time they will be able to develop a healthier relationship with the concept of mortality.
Fear of Parents Dying and Its Link With Separation Anxiety
Experiencing a fear of your parents dying can be incredibly distressing and is so common amongst children who come to my clinic. It makes total sense to me that this fear is often the root cause of children’s separation anxiety.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a type of anxiety commonly experienced by school-age children who struggle with being separated from a parent, for example to go into school. It’s common among children aged 7 to 9 years old but even separation anxiety in teenagers is not unusual.
Separation anxiety makes total sense from an evolutionary perspective. Children are totally dependent on their parents – or in some cases wider family members like grandparents. Our parents and family members make us feel safe. they contain our emotions for us when they get too big. It’s natural that children will be scared about losing these vital attachment relationships.
If you have a sensitive child however, this fear may become all-consuming and blown out of proportion. That’s when you will need to take action – potentially involving a mental health professional. See my advice below.
Early intervention and building coping mechanisms are essential to prevent potential long-term consequences on mental health.
To help children cope with their fear of their parents dying and separation anxiety, several strategies can be employed, such as:
- Building their sense of safety where possible through increased nurture.
- Encouraging open communication about their fears and feelings.
- Assisting them in developing coping mechanisms.
- Collaborating with professionals, if needed, to manage their anxiety symptoms.
Recognising Signs of Death Anxiety
Physical Symptoms of Death Anxiety
If your child is experiencing death anxiety, you may notice some physical symptoms, even if they haven’t actually expressed anxiety about death.
Younger children in particular may not be able to verbalise their feelings, but their body language could reveal their anxiety.
Common physical symptoms can include:
- Increased heart rate
- Shaking or trembling
- Muscle tension
- Shortness of breath
- Insomnia or difficulty falling asleep
These symptoms might be more pronounced in situations where the topic of death arises, or when they are dealing with separation anxiety from loved ones. With a bit of detective work, you may have narrowed it down and suspect that it is in fact anxiety about death.
Emotional Responses to Anxiety About Death
In addition to physical symptoms, death anxiety can manifest itself through various emotional responses.
Some emotional responses to watch for include:
- Persistent sadness lasting two weeks or more (not as a result of someone actually dying).
- Withdrawing from social interactions.
- Refusing to separate from a parent or caregiver.
- Excessive worry or rumination about death and dying.
- Irritability or mood swings.
- Tearfulness or crying more often than usual.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
How to Address Your Child’s Anxiety about Death
1. Open Communication and Encouragement
It’s crucial to maintain open lines of communication with your child, especially when they’re experiencing anxiety about death.
Encourage them to express their thoughts and feelings openly, and make sure you’re actively listening to what they have to say. They might find it hard to talk about their feelings on death, and prefer other means such as drawing.
Engaging with your child will help them understand that their emotions are valid and that it’s a good idea to share their fears, whether those concerns are related to the thought of death, the death of a family member, or a close friend dealing with a terminal illness.
2. Validating and Acknowledging Fears
When your child shares their anxiety about death, it’s essential to validate and acknowledge their fears.
This means that you should:
- Give your full attention and be empathetic.
- Avoid dismissing or minimising their concerns.
- Help them understand that it’s normal to have fears about death and that many others experience similar worries.
The first step in addressing your child’s anxiety is to make them feel heard and understood.
3. Exploring Spiritual and Religious Beliefs
One method to help alleviate your child’s anxiety about death is to explore spiritual or religious beliefs. If your family has a particular faith, discussing the concept of afterlife or the reassuring aspects of your religion may provide comfort for them.
If your family isn’t religious, connecting with nature, discussing the cycle of life, or even just exploring different philosophical perspectives on death can help your child better understand and come to terms with their own fears.
4. Use Books and Other Helpful Resources
It might be beneficial to provide your child with helpful resources, such as books or videos that explain death and dying in an age-appropriate manner.
For under 10s, a book called When Dinosaurs Die is very clear and helpful. It will help your child understand what life means and what death means.
I Have a Question About Death is another book which I can recommend, particularly for neurodivergent children. It is straight talking but not too scary and is suitable for most ages.
Managing Death Anxiety in Daily Life
Coping Strategies for Children and Teens
Dealing with anxiety about death is a natural part of life, especially for children and teens who are becoming more aware of their own mortality.
To help manage these negative thoughts and fears, try the following strategies:
- Encourage day-to-day open discussions about death and their feelings, allowing your child to express their emotions without judgment. For example, if it crops up on a TV programme you are all watching, use it as a talking point. Remember, thoughts of death can be triggered by past experiences, so it’s essential to create a safe space for them to share.
- Teach relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness, and meditation to help them gain control over their fears and reduce anxiety in daily life.
- Promote healthy habits and routines, including regular exercise, proper sleep, and balanced meals, to support their overall wellbeing.
- If you notice persistent anxiety or signs of significant loss of control, consider seeking professional help from a healthcare provider or therapist trained in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for children and adolescents.
The Role of Family and Friends in Supporting Your Anxious Child
The support of family and friends may play an important role in helping children manage death anxiety in daily life. As a parent, guardian or friend, you can:
- Be patient and understanding, acknowledging that fears of death can be a normal part of life. Offer comfort and reassurance, but avoid dismissing their concerns as irrational.
- Share personal experiences and stories of how you or others have dealt with the fear of death to demonstrate that they are not alone in their feelings.
- Build open communication within your family, discussing the topic of death in age-appropriate terms to help everyone understand and cope.
- Encourage social interactions and involvement in activities that bring joy and connection, to shift the focus away from negative thoughts and fears.
Recognising When Professional Help is Needed
Indicators of Severe Death Anxiety
While fear of death is a common experience for people of all ages, it is essential to recognize when a child’s fear has escalated to a level that requires professional assistance.
Severe death anxiety can manifest in various emotional responses and behavioural changes. Some warning signs to watch for include:
- Excessive worry or obsession with death and dying, affecting their daily functioning.
- Irrational fear that their parents or loved ones will die soon.
- Sleep disturbances, such as nightmares, insomnia, or needing constant reassurance.
- Avoidance of situations or places that trigger the fear of death.
- Development of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as a coping mechanism. For example, “if I do this ritual, Dad won’t die”.
It is important to note that a traumatic event, such as the loss of a close family member, may amplify these behaviours. But, even without such experiences, some children may still develop severe death anxiety.
Types of Therapy for Anxious Children
If you notice these signs in your child, consider seeking professional help from a mental health expert.
There are various therapeutic approaches for treating death anxiety in children, and the chosen method depends on the child’s age, cognitive development, and the root cause of the fear.
Some common types of therapy include:
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): This approach focuses on identifying and changing unhelpful thought patterns related to death. CBT can help your child challenge and reframe their fear, making it more manageable.
- Family Therapy: In some cases, a child’s fear of death might be rooted in family dynamics or a traumatic experience the family has been through. In such instances, family therapy can help address any underlying issues and provide support for the entire family.
- Art Therapy or Play Therapy: Nonverbal approaches such as art therapy or play therapy are ideal for younger children or children who struggle to talk about what is troubling them.
Case Study: Elliott, Age 8
Elliott, an 8-year-old, had recently found himself bogged down by persistent worries about death.
He’d expressed some anxiety about his health, asked numerous questions about the end of his elderly dog’s life, and had experienced several weeks of sleepless nights.
Recognising the depth of his concerns, Elliott’s parents were eager to find constructive ways to support him.
In their conversations, they kept explanations age-appropriate, steering clear of overly complicated ideas and offering clear, relatable answers.
For example, they explained that they didn’t know if there was a life after death such as reincarnation, but they liked to think there was.
Recognising the therapeutic benefits of creative expression, Elliott’s parents encouraged him to try some art therapy activities at home. For example, he drew what some of his worries felt like, and drew the inside of his mind when it was full of worries. This allowed Elliott to externalise and process his emotions. Over time this gave him a sense of balance in his life.
When Elliott spoke of physical symptoms, like feeling weighed down by worry, his parents understood that these were manifestations of his anxiety. They explained that these symptoms are normal and nothing to worry about. They tried to help him focus on the present and cherish his daily connections.
Through thoughtful discussions, the introduction of art as a coping mechanism, and unwavering support from his mum and dad, Elliott gradually processed his anxiety about death. He was able to redirect his mind from the uncertainty of death to the richness of everyday life.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Should I Say to an Anxious Child with Fears About Death?
By simply listening, you’re helping to contain their anxiety, and letting them know they are not alone with their fears about death.
You don’t need to have all the answers.
Just being there, having that heart-to-heart, is enough. You are telling them, their fears are totally okay and normal.
In doing so, you’re helping them process their fears about death and grow stronger, one chat at a time.
Does Anxiety About Death in Children Cause Physical Symptoms?
Anxiety about death in children can manifest in intense anxiety and fear in response to thoughts of death.
Just like any other form of anxiety, children experiencing anxiety about death often exhibit physical symptoms, such as chest pain, chills, dizziness, nausea, racing heartbeat, shallow rapid breathing, sweating, trembling, and upset stomach.
How Can I Help My Fearful Child With Anxiety About Death?
To help a child overcome fear of death, you will need to use a combination of strategies such as:
- Encouraging open communication about their worries.
- Validating their feelings and trying to understand their perspective.
- Providing reassurance, comfort, and support.
- Helping them improve their coping skills and resilience.
- Seeking professional assistance from qualified mental health professionals, if necessary.
Fear of Parents Dying: How Should I Approach This Phobia With My Child?
Many kids experience anxiety over the thought of their parents’ mortality. It’s a natural part of understanding the world and our place in it. First off, it’s important to acknowledge your child’s feelings. Brushing them aside or simply saying “don’t worry” might make your child feel unheard.
Instead, sit down, look them in the eye, and let them know it’s okay to feel scared sometimes. Let them share their feelings without interruption.
Once they’ve expressed themselves, reassure them by discussing the measures you and other adults take to stay healthy and safe.
Emphasize the love and care in your family, and the fact that everyone works together to look out for each other.
Sometimes, children just need to be reminded that they’re in a safe space.
Every conversation, no matter how challenging, is an opportunity to strengthen your bond and provide your child with the tools they need to grow resilient and emotionally healthy.
Overcoming Death Anxiety in Children: What’s the Best Approach?
Helping your child learn to manage fears, especially something as profound as death anxiety, is a slow and steady journey, not a sprint.
It’s okay for your child to take their time.
Giving them the space to chat about their tricky thoughts can be a game-changer. You want them to let that bottled-up worry out. Then, you help them contain it. This is called co-regulating.
Equipping them with easy-to-grasp tools, like taking calming deep breaths or practicing mindfulness, can support them too.
If you feel it’s right, it can be incredibly helpful to seek out a mental health professional to give your child some therapeutic support. Sometimes it’s easier to express your true feelings openly to someone who is not emotionally entangled in your feelings.
But not every child needs this. Some just need time, space and understanding.
Is Death Anxiety a Disorder?
While fear of death is natural, thanatophobia, or death anxiety, is considered a disorder when it becomes so extreme that it causes panic attacks and interferes with a person’s emotional wellbeing and ability to function in daily life.
Severe death anxiety may require intervention from mental health professionals.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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