Young Children and the Fear of Death

Ten soothing solutions to help your child through a worry patch.

Posted Feb 09, 2018 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

Glenn Beltz/Flickr
Source: Glenn Beltz/Flickr

Some kids worry a lot about death, whether or not they’ve lost someone close. For some, the worry trigger is a story. For others, it’s seeing a cemetery, or hearing family members talk about a death. For others, it’s the much more obviously troubling experience of losing someone they love, or a family pet. Regardless of the circumstances, parents can help their children handle the worries so they don’t become overwhelming.

What can parents do to soothe death-related anxieties?

  1. Take it seriously. Be present and available when your child talks about death. Put down your phone. Stop unloading the dishwasher. Behave as if your child’s thoughts or worries on this topic matter to you.
  2. Be calm and reassuring. Don’t act worried about your child’s mental health. They need you to be the adult here, the strong person in charge who will keep them safe.
  3. Affirm the hard reality. Don’t sugar-coat the facts, but instead be kind and realistic. Talk to them about the inevitability of the life cycle, and how it applies to everything that is alive. Plants, animals, humans. Your child will be reassured by the practical biological truth, and this helps them feel they can trust their parent to tell them the truth. (Note: Use the term "dying," and not "going to sleep," unless you also want your child to develop sleep problems.)
  4. Be honest and positive. Kids’ biggest fear is usually that they or their parents will die soon. Let them know that you plan to be around for a long, long, time. In young-child terms, it’s sufficiently honest to say you’re planning to live to 100, until they have children of their own, and their children have children. If your child asks what happens after someone dies, respond as positively as possible, without getting mystical (you don’t want to scare your child further with ideas of ghosts, or have them think people or pets have chosen to go off to a better place and leave them behind). You can talk about the ways a person (or pet) lives on in people’s memories. “Grandma will always be with me, in my heart. She doesn’t come over any more, but she’s still here, in our memories.”
  5. Look for actions that affirm life. Talk about how being alive is a blessing, something to be grateful for every day. Talk about actions you can take when you’re alive, ways to express that gratitude. It can be as simple as taking a walk, and appreciating all the life in the neighborhood—the people, the pets, the trees, the plants, even the annoying insects. It can be bigger, like expressing appreciation to all the people who make our lives better, as we encounter them. It can take the form of artistic expression, or learning something new, or participating in challenging physical activities.
  6. Ensure a healthy balance. Like adults, kids are healthier in body and mind when they have a reasonably predictable schedule of naps, meals, snuggles, playtime, learning time, chores, outdoor time, and the rest.
  7. Model an attitude of gratitude. Express appreciation for the fact that your child is alive, and in your life. Support your child in appreciating what’s good in their life. They will focus less on their fears as they find the pleasure in helping others, focusing on the well-being of others. Gratitude has many benefits, including increased well-being, happiness, energy, optimism, empathy, and popularity.  
  8. Institute a daily Worry Session. Set aside a special ten-minute "Worry Session" every day—maybe an hour before bed—to discuss your child’s fears. Ask them to talk to you about what they’re worrying about. Be present, available, and reassuring.
  9. Read good children’s books about death. These include And So It Goes, by Paloma Valdivia; Goodbye Mog, by Judith Kerr; The Goodbye Book, by Todd Parr; Ida Always, by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso; and more.
  10. Consult a professional. If the worries get too big, and you're not able to soothe your child, it's time to talk to a professional. You may need help dealing with your child’s anxieties.