Monday 5 December 2016

My 12-year-old is very anxious about death. How can I help?

Published 26/01/2016 | 02:30

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice

Parenting expert David Coleman advises on how to deal with a 12-year-old child's anxiety over death and how to help with insecurity in a six-year-old.

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Question: My son is 12 and is becoming very anxious about death. He is aware of what is going on in the world and recent events, like those in Paris, have made him highly anxious and aware of how random and dangerous the world can be. World events are discussed at home and at school and I have shared his anxiety with his teacher.

I can't protect him from the news. He is an intelligent boy and is doing well at school.

But he has high levels of anxiety at night and fears he will die in his sleep. How can I help him?

David replies: Thoughts about death and the relative fragility of life can affect any of us at any stage in our lives. This is also true for children.

Typically, some experience with death, like a bereavement, or images of death in the papers, online, or in the news, bring those thoughts to the fore. It is like a stark reminder that all of our lives have to end sometime.

When we are faced with death we can end up thinking about our own mortality or the mortality of those close to us. Either way it can be very distressing.

I have no doubt that the terror attacks in Paris before Christmas, and other news reports of murder, death, even car fatalities can increase a child's perception of the risk of death.

Most of us have a personally held "risk tolerance", or a willingness to put ourselves in the way of perceived danger. For some, like Felix Baumgartner who skydived from the edge of space, we can imagine that their risk tolerance is very high. Others of us may have a lower tolerance, for example, preferring not to drive if there is a forecast of frost or ice on the roads.

But high levels of news reporting of tragic events can skew our sense of how likely these relatively rare events are. We can easily believe that very rare events are more likely to occur if we happen to be hearing a lot about them. Hearing lots about a plane crash may increase our anxiety about air travel even though, statistically, it is far safer than travelling by car.

I don't agree, however, that you can't protect your son from the news. Even though he is 12, you can choose not to turn on the television news and you can change channel on the radio. If he goes looking for news, then it is harder, but not impossible.

You can significantly reduce his "accidental" exposure to difficult or upsetting news if you really have a mind to do it.

As well as reducing his exposure to the news, it would be really helpful to try to filter, or contextualise whatever bits of news he is seeing and hearing. It is good that you talk about the news, but it is really important that part of those discussions always put the news into the context of what is actually likely to happen to him, or you, or anyone close to your family.

When children do get anxious, and if that anxiety seems very general and broad, then it can help to try to pinpoint what might have been the likely triggers right back at the start. Talking about children's fears with them can really reduce the intensity of those fears.

Our goal, in talking to children, is not to try to remove the source of that fear (it may not be possible in any event, if it is centred on the potential for a random terror attack, for example). Our goal is simply to demonstrate that we can understand the nature of their fear.

By acknowledging it, we validate the child's experience of anxiety and that helps to reduce its intensity (much along the same principle that "a problem shared is a problem halved" - which often holds true!)

Specifically at night time, your son might like to try meditative-type relaxation exercises, as these often provide both the relaxation and the distraction from intrusive or worrisome thoughts. I have one such guided visualisation exercise, as a podcast that can be downloaded, on my website. Go todavidcoleman.ie and follow the link for "radio-podcasts" and scroll down until you find it.

In general, fears of death, among children, tend to be phases and will often pass in time, as they get older and understand the world differently.

In the meantime, warmth and understanding from you should hold your son in good stead.

Why is our six-year-old so insecure? He is afraid to leave our sides and rarely goes to play with friends

Question: Our older son aged six seems to be very insecure. He gets asked to loads of birthday parties and play dates at other children's houses but is reluctant to go to most of these, he prefers to stay at home. He does swimming and GAA unwillingly. He insists one of us is present and visible to him at all times. He gets anxious if we go somewhere new. He won't stay in a room on his own and will call for his mum if she isn't present. We rarely leave him and are there every night for him, he even sleeps with us. What is causing this insecurity?

Question: While you have given lots of examples of your son's insecurity, there are few clues as to what may have triggered it. Anxiety, in young children, however, is very common and can be sparked by many things.

Sometimes, an insecurity may go right back to a child's early attachment. Attachment, in this context, refers to a child's sense of how reliable and trustworthy their primary carer was, in meeting their needs, in the first couple of years of their life.

If children experience marked inconsistency in how they got responded to, or if parents were emotionally unavailable, it can leave children unsure about their world, feeling that it is unpredictable or that they need to be on alert.

Beyond attachment, however, single events that were traumatic or highly stressful or anxiety provoking can leave children with a more generalised sense of anxiety.

So, for example, if a child gets lost in a supermarket, for a short while, it may be a terrifying event for them. Even though the risk of them getting lost again is minimal (because their parents are twice as vigilant in future), that child could end up worried about going out, about their safety at home, about getting lost, about the dark and so on.

Without more information, however, I can't pinpoint why your son has become (or has always been) as insecure as you describe.

Some of the things you are doing, however, will be very supportive for him. By letting him sleep with you, for example, you offer him the strongest possible security at night time. He does, I imagine, really like snuggling up to you.

You can also support him by being very understanding and accepting of his anxiety. Children rarely feel reassured by adults when they don't think we really "get" or understand how anxious they feel. So, before we try to reassure them, we have to really empathise with their feelings of anxiety.

That means lots of comments to him about how you can guess, or can imagine, or might wonder, about how scared, frightened, unsure, nervous, he feels in different situations.

Be careful not to deny him his feelings too. Many parents while trying to rationally explain that the risks to their child are minimal, can say things like "don't be silly, you are fine on your own, we are right next door", or "come on you are a big boy now, there is nothing to be scared of".

While the intention may be to encourage them to challenge their fears, the real experience for a child can be that the parent doesn't understand and doesn't care about their worries and is forcing them to do something that they feel afraid of.

As long as you are warm and understanding, however, it can be a good thing to encourage your child to do some of things they feel nervous doing. So going to other children's houses, going to training and so on can prove to be very positive experiences for your son if he feels understood and supported.

Using your presence as a support, to bolster him while he tries these things, is probably the best approach.

Even though it is time consuming for parents, and they may feel they don't get a break from their child, it is good to just simply be with your child when they feel nervous. Even though it is also okay for your son to be shy, or reserved, caring words of encouragement might then give him the additional security he needs to face some of things that he is currently nervous of.

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