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Fear of Death in Children

What You Should Know

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Updated February 13, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Thanatophobia, or fear of death, is surprisingly common. The fear cuts across religious, social and cultural boundaries, affecting people of all ages and backgrounds. Perhaps the most disturbing, though, is the fear of death in children. We generally expect kids to be happy-go-lucky and fearless, and any phobia can be difficult for parents to cope with. When the fear is of death, it can be particularly challenging.

Primal Fear

In fact, research shows that the fear of death is universal, and children are not immune. A 1981 analysis in the Journal of the National Medical Association explores the fear of death as the primary fear upon which all other fears are based. Researchers Nelli Mitchell, MD and Karen Schulman, MA, postulate that children view death without all the trappings, religious beliefs or defense mechanisms that adults have. Instead, children see death as a terrifying state of not being. But they do not necessarily understand what causes death, and may see it as a fulfillment of their own subconscious wishes and desires. They also lack an adult concept of time, making it difficult to grasp the idea that someone can go away and then come back. When mommy is gone, as far as the child is concerned she is dead. This leads to separation anxiety and other fears that have to do with being alone.

Magical Thinking

In an adult, magical thinking is a possible symptom of a psychological disorder. But magical thinking in children is a normal developmental process. Kids lack the experience and knowledge needed to perceive the world in a rational way. Instead, most children go through a phase of believing that their thoughts and wishes are all-powerful. This may be an effort to gain some control over the world around them. But fantasy is a double-edged sword. If the child thinks about someone dying, in his mind it could be enough to kill that person. So kids develop rituals and superstitions designed to protect themselves and the world around them from those wishes becoming reality.

How to Help

In most children, the fear of death will not become pathological. Most childhood fears are soon outgrown as kids gain maturity and begin to shift their focus to the here and now. Because fears are so common and so quickly resolved, phobias are not diagnosed in children until they have been present for at least six months.

However, your reaction as a parent or teacher can partially influence how long-lasting and how severe the child's fear of death is. Many adults assume that kids have no real concept of death, so they avoid talking about it with their children. But kids tend to ask for information when they are ready for it. Healthy, child-led dialogue can help kids put death in perspective and minimize their feelings of responsibility for it.

Seeking Therapy

If your child displays a severe, life-limiting fear of death, or if the fear lasts for more than six months, seek professional guidance. Counseling is also recommended for children who experience a major loss such as the death of a parent or close friend, or are witnesses to a severe trauma such a school shooting.

Placing your child in therapy can trigger your own insecurities or make you wonder if you somehow failed as a parent. In reality, phobias can develop for a seemingly endless number of reasons. Early intervention gives your child the best chances to fully combat the phobia and move on with his life.

Visiting the therapist can be nerve-wracking for both parent and child. Have a look at "Your Child's First Therapy Appointment" for a detailed explanation of what to expect. With a bit of time and effort, though, your child will be firmly on the road to beating the fear and living a normal life.

Source:

Mitchell MD, Nelli L. and Schulman MA, Karen R. "The Child and The Fear of Death." Journal of the National Medical Association. 1981. 73:10. February 5, 2011.

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