Helping Your Child With the Fear of Death

What Parents Should Know About Thanatophobia

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Thanatophobia is a specific phobia involving an intense fear of death and dying. It is characterized by intense fear and avoidance of reminders of death, which impacts a person's ability to function in their daily life. 

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.

Signs and Symptoms of the Fear of Death

Children with thanatophobia experience intense anxiety and fear in response to thoughts of death. As a result, they often experience physical symptoms of fear, such as:

  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Shallow, rapid breathing
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Upset stomach

Other common signs and symptoms include avoiding threatening situations, constantly asking for reassurance, clinging to a parent or caregiver, and obsessing about minor health complaints.

Thanatophobia is not considered a distinct condition in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM-5-TR), the tool that healthcare practitioners use to help diagnose mental health conditions. Instead, it would be diagnosed as a specific phobia, which is an intense fear of a specific object or situation.

What Causes Children's Fear of Death?

There are a variety of factors that can contribute to a fear of death in children. Fear of the unknown can play a part, but it may also be linked to a traumatic loss, such as the loss of a parent or other loved one.

Generally, some fear of death and dying is normal for kids between the ages of seven and 16. Some experts also suggest that it can be a normal part of childhood development.

Why Fear of Death Is Primal Fear

The fear of death is particularly common in younger children around the ages of six and seven. 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 don't necessarily understand what causes it.

Younger kids also lack specific cognitive capacities, making it difficult to grasp that someone can go away and come back. When mommy is gone, as far as the young child is concerned, she may not continue to exist.

These cognitive differences in younger kids also contribute to separation anxiety, common in children between eight and 14 months. It also plays a role in other fears that involve being alone.

The Role of Magical Thinking

In an adult, magical thinking is a possible symptom of a mental disorder. But magical thinking in children is a normal developmental process.

Kids lack the cognitive capacities, experience, and knowledge needed to always perceive the world rationally. 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 this fantasy is a double-edged sword.

If the child thinks about someone dying, in his mind that alone could lead to the death of that person. So sometimes kids develop rituals and superstitions designed to protect themselves from those wishes becoming a reality.

Research suggests that the fear of death is also sometimes linked with other mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, panic disorder, and hypochondriasis. People who have an intense fear of death also tend to experience more severe mental health symptoms.

Helping 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 are persistent, excessive, present for six months or more, and significantly impact their functioning.

There are things you can do to help support a child who expresses a fear of death and dying. Strategies you can use to help your child include:

  • Listen: Talk to your child and listen to what they have to say. Don't dismiss or minimize their fears. Acknowledge their emotions and provide comfort and reassurance.
  • Avoid euphemisms: While you might be tempted to soften your language by using phrases like "sleeping," "gone way," or "in a better place" when talking about death, it is better to be gentle yet direct. There is no need to be graphic or overly detailed, but you can provide general, clear explanations that a person has died.
  • Discuss death: Research suggests that most adults avoid discussing death with children until death occurs. Focus on having honest, factual, age-appropriate discussions about death.

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 discussing 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 problematic thoughts and feelings about death.

Seeking Therapy for Thanatophobia

If your child displays a severe, life-limiting fear of death, or if the fear lasts for more than 6 months, seek professional guidance. Counseling is also recommended for children who experience a significant 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 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 combat the phobia.

A Word From Verywell

Anxiety and distress about death is a common fear for young children and teens. For most kids, this fear will gradually diminish as they grow, gain new experiences, and acquire different coping skills. A more severe fear of death, however, may require professional intervention. Talk to your child's doctor if you are concerned about their symptoms for further advice and evaluation.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a phobia or other mental health condition, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Specific phobias.

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Understanding childhood fears and anxieties.

  4. Iverach L, Menzies RG, Menzies RE. Death anxiety and its role in psychopathology: Reviewing the status of a transdiagnostic constructClinical Psychology Review. 2014;34(7):580-593. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2014.09.002

  5. Menzies RE, Sharpe L, Dar‐Nimrod I. The relationship between death anxiety and severity of mental illnessesBritish Journal of Clinical Psychology. 2019;58(4):452-467. doi:10.1111/bjc.12229

  6. Longbottom S, Slaughter V. Sources of children's knowledge about death and dyingPhilos Trans R Soc Lond, B, Biol Sci. 2018;373(1754). doi:10.1098/rstb.2017.0267

  7. University of Pennsylvania. Specific phobias.

By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.