Helping Children With Thanatophobia (Fear of Death)

What Parents Should Know About Thanatophobia

Small girl looking worried
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There is help for thanatophobia, the fear of death. This phobia cuts across religious, social, and cultural boundaries, affecting people of all ages and backgrounds. But it can be disturbing for adults when the fear of death surfaces in children. We generally expect kids to be happy-go-lucky and fearless, and any phobia can be difficult for parents to address. When the fear is of death it can be particularly challenging to cope.

Why Fear of Death Is Primal Fear

The fear of death is common for children around the ages of six or seven. Researchers believe 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 nothingness, and they don't necessarily understand what causes it. Your child may view death as a fulfillment of their own subconscious wishes and desires.

Kids 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, common in children between eight and 14 months, and other fears that involve being alone.

The Role of 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 that alone could kill that person.

So kids develop rituals and superstitions designed to protect themselves from those wishes becoming reality.

How to Help a Child With Thanatophobia

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. However, your child may receive a thanatophobia diagnosis if her symptoms present for six months or more.​

Your reaction as a parent or teacher can partially influence how long lasting and 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 for Thanatophobia

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 witness a traumatic event such as 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. Review "Your Child's First Therapy Appointment" for a detailed explanation of what to expect. With a bit of time and effort, your child will be firmly on the road to beating the fear and living a normal life.

Sources

HealthyChildren.org: Understanding Childhood Fears and Anxiety. 2015.

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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