Question: We have a 5-year-old who obsesses about dying. This has been going on for six months, ever since a child in the neighborhood died of a congenital genetic condition. Our son knew the boy and has been fearful of dying ever since. This is causing him lots of anxiety during the day and he is unable to go to sleep at night unless one of us is with him.
We took him to a therapist, but after four sessions we saw no improvement so we stopped that. We have explained, over and over again, the difference between himself — very healthy — and the child who passed away, but nothing we say makes a difference. We’re hoping you have some good advice for us.
Answer: It may seem counterintuitive, but the more parents talk to children about irrational fears, the worse the fears become. Another way of saying the same thing: Logic is lost on a child who is thinking illogically.
You have no doubt said all there is to say about your son’s fear of dying. At this point, you are merely repeating yourselves. Plus, you’re anxious as well. Parents cannot hide anxiety from an intuitively brilliant child, and “intuitively brilliant” describes nearly all children. As your respective anxieties pingpong back and forth, they increase. As his anxieties worsen, so do yours, and vice versa.
You are the adults. You are the only party who can end this deteriorating feedback loop. To do so, stop talking. Sit down with your son and tell him that you’ve said all you can say about the reason the boy in question died and why his death is in no way relevant to your son.
Say something along these lines: “We’ve said all we can think of to say. Obviously, the things we’ve said haven’t helped you, so we’re not saying anything more. Even if you want to talk about dying, we’re not going to talk. We’re simply going to say, ‘Remember? We’re not saying anything more about that.’
“If that makes you cry, so be it. You can go to your room and cry all you want, but crying is not going to change our minds. You’re going to have to figure out some way to stop thinking these thoughts. Play with your favorite toy or something. You’re a smart kid and we know you can do this.”
If you stick to your guns — and believe me, it’s going to be tough — then his fears should begin to subside within a couple of weeks. In the meantime, continue to sit with him until he goes to sleep but do not get into bed with him.
When you feel comfortable doing so — this, too, will be intuitive — tell your son that you’ve spoken with a doctor who has told you that he needs to go to sleep on his own. The doctor has told you it’s OK to read him a bedtime story, but after the story and a kiss goodnight, you have to leave his room. If he feels like he needs to cry for a while to get to sleep, it’s perfectly OK. The important thing is that you leave and do not go back in there, no matter what. Keep in mind that there is no way your son is going to get over this and move on without some distress.
Why the doctor? Because invoking a third party whose authority your son already recognizes is going to hasten his “recovery.” The full explanation is complicated, so please, just take my word for it. The “doctor” told me to tell you that.