I wanted to write this post as it’s been the centre of our lives for a few months, and we are now seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Our five year old daughter has been suffering with thanatophobia- a fear of death and/ or dying. ‘But she’s five,’ I hear you cry, and believe me, we thought it too… at first.
As most mothers would, I hit google. I spent many hours researching every aspect of this phobia in children, and other parents advice, tips, and experiences. Knowing that it is more common than we first thought, and that other people have come out the other side has really helped, hence why I felt the need to write this post on our experience.
How it started:
One night, I was putting Sophie to bed and she suddenly broke down in tears (hysterical crying). When I finally calmed her down enough to understand her, she said, “I don’t want to die and I don’t want you and Daddy to die and leave me all alone.” Millions of questions sprung to mind. How do I answer that without lying? Where has she heard about death? Why does she look so petrified? What should and shouldn’t I say to comfort her? And most importantly, how can I make it better? After an hour she was sleeping and all was well again.
One week later:
It happened again, but her questions were more intense. Why are we born if we die? Do we live for a long time? Will you and Daddy die before me? Nothing I said would appease her and her anxiety grew and grew. I finally got her to sleep again, but the questions and tears started again as soon as she woke up in the morning.
We noticed a connection with her anxieties and starting primary school in September, but it took a sudden turn when I was leaving her at school crying for me, and she’d cry in the mornings expressing concerns that I might die in the day and not come to pick her up.
I spoke to her teacher and she made me feel a bit better. She told me that thanatophobia is common in children between the ages of 4 and 8. Especially in intelligent, sensitive children like Sophie. She has an understanding that death is final and happens to us all eventually, but due to her age, she doesn’t have the mental capacity to process the information emotionally. She told us to tell Sophie that we are all young and healthy and she has nothing to worry about, and then to change the subject. Letting her dwell on information isn’t helpful. She also suggested that it was a control issue which now, looking back, is blatantly obvious. Sophie didn’t like the not knowing of where we were or what we were up to.
We acted on the advice and it worked for a time, but Sophie’s anxieties branched out to worrying if disabled people would die, or if she even thought about us dying that it might come true. We were treading on egg shells with anything from cancer research adverts on the TV, to people absentmindedly mentioning, what we dubbed the ‘D’ word. Friends and family grew accustomed to minding what they said around her. By this time we were worried about her mental health. Is our child ‘normal’? Don’t get me wrong, in between her bouts of anxiety, Sophie was your average, happy, playful child, and although the episodes were more frequent, they were by no means all the time.
Parents evening was a day after a particularly difficult day of comforting Sophie, tears, tantrums, and us falling into bed feeling emotionally drained. The first thing Sophie’s teacher asked was if we had any concerns. Uh, yes… I explained the situation in detail.
“I’m glad you said that because we too are concerned with Sophie’s anxieties. It is now affecting her at school.”
My heart is pounding in my ears. Oh my god, is there something really wrong with my child? What have they experienced with her at school?
She told us that Sophie needed constant reassurance from an adult, and if taken out of her comfort zone in regards to different educational activities she’d become very clingy and would constantly express worries about ‘mummy and daddy’. Again, the control issues were the stem of her anxiety.
We agreed to try different techniques with Sophie; getting her to take a deep breath when she felt anxious or scared, and for her to tell herself out loud that she doesn’t need to worry. She had to deal with her anxieties herself, just like we do as adults. When it came to questions of death, we continued with the brief explanation that we are young and healthy, and then would change the subject. But it was agreed that after the school half term holidays, if there was no improvement, she’d get a school nurse referral to get professional tips on how to deal with her anxiety.
My head was swimming, but I felt better knowing that the school believed it to be a phase, and that no other underlying factor was present. Other than those anxieties, she had friends and was a happy, academically bright child. ‘She will work through this’, the teacher said.
Over the week, I had spoken to Sophie’s old nursery teacher who told me that she experienced the same anxiety at Sophie’s age, and that made me feel much better. Speaking with different people was enlightening. Some had experienced it themselves, or their child had a similar phase. Being told that what we were doing was the correct way to handle it was reassuring too.
Sophie goes to a Church of England school, so is taught about Christianity, sings hymns, says prayers etc. She was singing ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’ at home and I explained what the hymn meant. She was fascinated. We tell her that her great Grandad and great great Nana are in heaven watching her, and have done since they died when she was 2 years old.
One day, she came home and asked about God and Heaven. She said she didn’t know what Heaven was and that it scared her because it was connected to dying. I explained it to her and this had the best effect on her emotionally. Finally, we had found something to make her feel a little better. The idea that spirits go to heaven and we all get to see each other again was a massive comfort to her. I would say I am a spiritual person, not conformed to organised religion, but I’m happy to comfort her and let her make up her own mind when she’s old enough to.
I was expecting a difficult week, but we were pleasantly surprised. We created a sticker reward chart. If Sophie had what we called ‘silly’ thoughts, (we are aware that her thoughts were valid, but ‘silly’ was a term she understood), but dealt with them using her deep breath techniques, then she’d get a sticker. This worked brilliantly. We’d sometimes see her taking a deep breath, and then getting on with what she was doing. She was learning to deal with her anxieties without our reassurance. Of course, we had the occasional question, but minus the hysterics.
Back to School:
The Sunday before school resumed, my nerves were a little all over the place with worry and anxiety of my own. We had such an improved week on the previous that I was worried Sophie would regress a bit, knowing that she had to be in school without us. I took her in as usual, reminded her of her breathing exercises, kissed her goodbye… and … she ran off to play without so much as a quivering lip.
The teacher and I gave each other an ‘okay, that just happened’ look, and I ran out before Sophie had a chance to miss me. This happened for a few more days, and although we were ecstatic, we couldn’t help but worry about when her anxiety might get the better of her.
End of the Week:
Sophie was asking less about death, and when she did she was rational and attentive. She was going to school without tears, happy for me to leave, and coming out exuberant. I asked the teacher if they too had noticed a difference… and… yes, “Sophie has really turned a corner, she is nowhere near as clingy, she is getting on with other activities outside of her comfort zone, not expressing concerns about mummy and daddy, and progress is being made.” *Massive exhale with relief*
Of course, she may still have anxieties and express them to us, but she is dealing with them and they’re not over coming her. If this post reassures just one other parent that there is an end to this emotional, exhausting, worrying phase, then I’m happy to have helped.
All images are the property of K.J.Chapman