Ask the Expert: How can I calm my son’s fears about death?
By listening you communicate that your son is not alone and you relieve the burden of these fears. Photograph:Getty Images
Q My son, who will turn six soon, is afraid of death. He got very upset when I tucked him into bed last week and started to cry. He said he didn’t want to grow up as that would mean we (his dad and I) would get old and we would die. And that he wanted our family to stay together forever and didn’t want anyone to die.
He has not had any direct loss or experience with death. Almost a year ago a friend of his dad’s died and we explained briefly why his dad was sad at the time. Also, one of the boys in another class at school lost his dad a few years ago.
My son goes to a Catholic primary school and they light a candle and say a prayer each morning. He says he doesn’t like it as it reminds him of God, heaven and then death.
I spoke to his teacher and she said they would try to concentrate on “Thank you” prayers. I also notice that a lot of his role-play games involve soldiers, knights and death lately.
What should I say to him? I want to reassure him that we will all have a long happy life together, but how can I promise something I have no control over myself?
A Talking to a child about death is one of the most difficult conversations we can have as parents. Though it is normal and part of life, culturally we tend to avoid conversations about death and it can be quite taboo to raise the subject socially.
It can be particularly hard to see our children being worried about death and we naturally want to take this away from them.
In addition, such conversations can bring up your own fears about death – when your child worries about a close family member dying, it can trigger your own worries about the same subject.
Even parents who want to listen and support their children with their questions about death can be at a loss as to how to respond – such questions can challenge parents’ personal beliefs about death, religious or otherwise, that they have inherited, and they may not have thought through what values they want to communicate to their children about this important issue.
Death awareness in children
More than parents realise, children do think about death. Whether or not they have direct experience of it through bereavement or the loss of a pet, death is still all around them, in their games and stories or in the adult news that they might pick up on.
From as young as two or three, children are likely to ask questions about death, though at this young age they often don’t appreciate it as permanent. They often see it as reversible, much like a cartoon character disappearing and coming back, and frequently don’t see it as personal and affecting them.
From the age of about five, children begin to appreciate death as permanent and potentially something that can affect them or their families.
It seems like your son has suddenly acquired this awareness. He has made the connection that the people close to him will eventually die. Naturally, this might make him fearful of growing up and seek to hold on to you forever.