Wednesday 22 November 2017

David Coleman: Why is our daughter obsessed with death?

Children
need to learn that it’s
OK to be afraid of
death
Children need to learn that it’s OK to be afraid of death
David Coleman

David Coleman

I have a nine-year-old daughter who recently has become obsessed, and really upset, about the possibility of both her parents growing old and dying. She is insisting on a commitment from both of us that we will live for ever!

She is waking up at night and bursts out crying on occasions. Neither of us are sure how to deal with this situation. She is the youngest of four and the age gap is significant between her and the next sibling up. We have never had this problem with our earlier three.

I am not sure why this has suddenly become such a big issue for her. Perhaps someone said something to her and that got it going? Maybe it's because she can see the age difference between us and the parents of her class mates?

She is very clever and is excellent at school. Have you any suggestions about what we could say to her?

There is not necessarily any one reason why children get fixated, distressed or worried about death. An intense focus on or interest in death is common enough at her age but it can occur for any child at any age.

More often than not a fear of death occurs after some experience that a child has of death. This can be a death of a pet, a relative or a close family friend.

Another very common source of exposure to death is through the media. Within media reports, death is often grisly, tragic, violent or gruesome. Hearing about or watching such reports brings death very vividly into a child's awareness. We know that when things are vivid, unusual or striking in some way that they are more likely to be remembered.

Most television news programmes report on death on an almost daily basis. This constant exposure to death can really skew our thinking about how likely death is to occur. In fact the chance of you and her dad dying is quite small, but she may have miscalculated the likelihood because death and dying have been pushed to the fore of her consciousness. So, even if no other reason were in place, this might account for your daughter's distressing fascination with your death.

I do think, however, that you are correct in your guess that your ages (and the fact that you look older than the parents of her peers) may be more of an issue for her. She may well perceive you to be more vulnerable to illness or death, especially if she has known any older people who have died. She may simply associate wrinkles or grey hair with impending death.

If she does indeed believe that you are more likely to die soon because you appear to be older than other parents that she knows, then this is the area for you to focus on.

The first step is to discuss with her what she understands about your age and your health. From your perspective her worry may seem to be irrational because you know that you are both healthy. But, lots of fears are irrational and we know rational argument alone will not work to reduce those fears.

You first need to help her to fully understand her worries and to accept that they are real. Because death is such an unknown quantity and comparatively unpredictable it does in many ways make sense to be afraid of it.

Death is a truly existential phenomenon. Many wise and clever thinkers have pondered it and many philosophies have been developed to try to explain it.

Despite all the intellectualising about it none of us can still predict when we will die or what will happen to us then.

So your daughter is, in many ways, simply grappling with this great unknown. It is a struggle that we must all experience at some stage. Most of us will have had passing thoughts and fears about death, but being pragmatic, we choose not to dwell on those thoughts because we realise that it is something over which we have no control.

Part of her recurring obsession with death is likely to be her sense that nobody really understands how scared she feels. Reassurances that you and her dad are fine and healthy and that she has nothing to worry about will not be enough.

If her fears get denied in this way then they will stay stuck and she won't be able to deal with them.

So, initially, you need to let her know very practically that you do understand that she is afraid you might die and that you can see why she might think this way.

By listening to her and helping her to understand that she is afraid and by accepting that her fear is real and valid, you actually give her the skills to cope with the fear.

You help her to regulate the fear so that it doesn't overwhelm her. Only when you have empathised fully with her distress and fear can you begin to offer reassurances about your comparative health. However, naturally, you cannot give her cast-iron guarantees that neither of you will die soon. Importantly, though, you can also help her to focus more on life and what can be achieved while we live and breathe.

In this way you are allowing her to really experience the fear but then not letting her wallow in it so that it becomes all pervasive.

You may know that because we can't actually control death, we are better off not thinking about it all the time and so we put it to the back of our minds.

She, as yet, doesn't realise this and can't manage to achieve it either. She needs your help to learn that it is okay to be afraid of death but that actually we need to distract ourselves to focus on life, school, hobbies, friends and so on.

She may always have a lingering fear that you will die (or in due course that she may die herself) but the key for her is that this doesn't need to get in the way of living.

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