Anxiety and Phobias During Loss
My 6-year-old came home from school the other day reporting that her best friend’s dog died over the weekend. After recounting the few facts as she understood them, her questions started. “Why did he die? Where was he when he died? What did he eat? How old was he? Will our dog die all of a sudden too? Who else is going to die? Am I going to die? When are you going to die?”
When something terrible happens to someone, we need details. Who, what, when, where, but most importantly HOW did this happen? I believe this is not driven by our voyeurism or sheer curiosity (usually), but by our desire to feel less powerless. We are seeking to reassure ourselves that the same couldn’t happen to us: the details of other’s tragedies help us find our “out.” We reassure ourselves with cautious steps to avoid calamity: we don’t smoke, we always turn off the oven, we put them to sleep on their backs, etc. Then we can sleep at night with the silent reassurance to ourselves that the same fate won’t befall us. It is a quite adaptive and sophisticated tactic to protect us from the crushing anxiety of the realization that sometimes, terrible tragedies strike with no cause or forewarning.
Children, however, do not usually have the benefit of so sophisticated a tactic. In fact, sometimes they do not have the cognitive capacity to distinguish any of the particular circumstances that led to some terrible tragedy. This can leave children feeling particularly confused, exposed and helpless. To an adult, “Grandma died in her sleep” connotes a peaceful passing at a ripe old age, and reassures us that we are safe until our own ripe old age. But for children, they might hear a terrifying message: “Some people just go to sleep and never wake up.” The child may wonder what assurance they have that they are safe if such a thing could happen to another unsuspecting human being. Bedtimes can become particularly evocative and scary for kids.
If the loss strikes even closer to home, in the case that a child’s parent or sibling dies, the fear can be exponentially more intense and difficult to combat. The worst has actually happened, and the child has landed at a place past distancing or reassurance. The focus should then become protecting the child from the common fear of contagion: the child’s worry that he or she is suddenly exposed to the risk of dying, too.
Anxiety, fears and worries escalate in all times of loss for kids, not just in grief over death. Loss, change, and grief can cause upheaval that can cause children to regress to behaviors they have outgrown or that are more commonly seen in younger children. Children who were easy to potty train and mastered independent toileting may begin bed-wetting. You may notice sleep difficulties, nightmares, or a fear of the dark. In school, students may have difficulty concentrating, may easily lose focus, or may develop academic troubles. This aspect of child grieving – the anxiety and fear- can be the most trying for parents to watch their child struggle with. Our hearts break for them, and we may even feel frustrated or overwhelmed.
Tips for dealing with your child’s anxiety following a loss:
Don’t panic; it is scary to have an anxious child, but over time, this should subside. Sometimes the bulk of our own anxiety as parents is that a phase will last a lifetime. The vast majority of children pass through life’s losses (even major traumas) without an enduring anxiety disorder.
Indulge them a little with childlike measures to make them feel less afraid, You may choose to add nightlights, worry dolls or stones, or a calming CD to lull them to sleep to help you and them through the difficult time,
Retain normal routines as much as possible. Unless you have a particular circumstance that makes it necessary, have children continue to sleep in their own beds and maintain their usual bedtime. Do not let them avoid or alter their regular activities and school schedules. Doing so inadvertently introduces new problems, creating bad habits and upsetting the sense of order and predictability, which is actually crucial to stability during times of upheaval.
Notify the school that a loss or change has occurred for your child so that they can be on the lookout for warning signs of academic difficulty and provide extra support if needed.
Provide reassurance and concrete answers -as much as your children seek- about why their loved one died. You may need to help them understand that they are not at inordinate risk of death, a common fear when someone dies. You may want to consult a book to help you tackle tough questions; I recommend my favorites at www.kidolences.com/books/
Know when to ask for help. If your child’s anxiety does not seem to be abating over time or your efforts to calm them are ineffective, seek help from a trained professional to help you through the tough time.
Do you notice that fears arise in times of transition? Leave a comment below.
Dr. Emily McClatchey is a child psychologist and mother of three young children. She is the founder and creator of Kidolences,® specially-formulated care boxes to help kids manage loss and change. Send your love to a child at www.kidolences.com.