“Please don’t go to work today. I don’t want you to get hit by a car.”
“I don’t want to sleep. What if you don’t wake up with me tomorrow? You can stop breathing sometime in the night.”
“I think something bad is going to happen. I can just feel it.”
Childhood fears and phobias are normal during the younger years; in the course of a child’s life, he or she will get afraid countless times. But no fear is probably as gripping or as anxiety-provoking as the fear that parents will die. Parents are a child’s entire world, and just the thought of losing one or both parents is too tragic to even contemplate.
But what can parents do? Of all the fears, this is one of the hardest to give assurance for — we don’t know what will happen to us tomorrow. But we can hardly let our child go on worrying about our health, safety or well-being 24/7. Not only will the fear paralyze them, it may also result in long-term issues in parental attachment. Children can become afraid of getting close to us because of the fear of loss.
The following are some tips in dealing with children’s fear that parents will die:
Try to Determine Where the Fear Started
Around four or five years of age, fear of parental death often surfaces. At this age, children begin to become aware of the concept of death and they often start asking about it or fretting about it in an almost obsessive way. Their concern normally fades away over a period of months with little parental intervention. Fear of parents’ death is sometimes triggered by an event that made children aware that people can die. Perhaps a classmate’s parent passed away. Or maybe there is terminal illness in the family. It can also be that your child saw a television program where the main character’s parent passed away, or there are news accounts of accidents and crimes. It’s important that you surface the cause of the fear and show that the odds of you suffering the same fate are low. Let your child know that people do die, but this usually happens when people are very old and the children are all grown up. One of the major underlying fears of parental death is the fear of abandonment. Letting children know that they will always be looked after by grownups if anything happens can help reduce the fear somewhat.
Allow Them to Talk About their Fear
Fear of parents’ death can’t be commanded to go away. Like other fears, it is best addressed by Emotional Coaching. Instead of concentrating on offering reassurance, concentrate on naming the child’s feeling and allowing her to just have it. For instance, if your daughter says, “I’m afraid you’re going to die,” don’t tell her “I’m not going to die.” Instead, name her feeling back to her: “That IS a scary feeling. You don’t want Mommy to die.” You don’t try to reason with her or talk her out of her fear, since this strategy has a way of sending the fear even deeper into the psyche. Instead, you just show that you are relaxed with the child’s feeling – you’re not all in a panic about her panic! When the child sees that you are able to handle her fear, she also relaxes and very often, she completely drops the fear! Suppose the child continues the conversation by actually asking you for reassurance: “So tell me are AREN’T going to die Mommy.” Again, name her feeling. “You’re really scared Mommy is going to die! Well, that isn’t very likely right now. What’s very likely is that Mommy will wake up with you tomorrow just like she did yesterday and the day before.” Again, you’re calm attitude will help a lot. Don’t work too hard at proving nothing will ever happen to you because, after all, even you don’t know that to be true.
Teach Positive Coping Skills
Fear is an emotion, and therefore can be addressed by skills in emotional management. They may be encouraged to draw what they are feeling, and more importantly, talk about their drawings to their parents. Structured play can also help kids relax and ventilate. Children can be taught to pray and to feel God’s support. They can be taught to imagine calming pictures in their mind instead of imagining scary ones. Bach Flower Remedies like Red Chestnut (for worry about loved ones) or Mimulus (for fears) may be helpful. If a child is suffering from her fears – i.e. she is having trouble falling asleep, sleeping in her own room, maintaining a calm, happy mood – professional assessment and counseling may be warranted.