Resources for dealing with kid anxiety about death?
September 8, 2021 5:33 AM   Subscribe

My primary-aged kids, especially my 8-year-old, are showing signs of intense anxiety around disease and death. I'm looking for resources that can help them cope with this in a healthy way.

It is probably no surprise to anybody why they'd be dealing with this, but several factors have created a perfect storm in addition to the normal covid stuff:

1. I live in Melbourne, so we were in extreme lockdown for most of last year and are now in the middle of another long stretch with no immediate end in sight. This means many months of seeing nobody else in person except those of us in the same home, and the general sense (no matter how much we try to minimise it) that being around other people is not safe and that the world is a place of illness.

2. My dad has been diagnosed with Parkinson's, and although I've tried to downplay that and not emphasise it overly much, his slow decline is increasingly apparent when we Skype every week.

3. Our cat died a month or two ago: a quick illness that came out of nowhere (probably cancer that we didn't catch until it had spread everywhere). In the space of a few weeks the cat went from fine to dead. The kids weren't super close to the cat, and I think we dealt as well as we could -- had a little ceremony, talked about feelings of sadness, lots of cuddles etc -- but it was still their first real experience of death and it was sudden and coincided right with beginning another lockdown.

4. My 8yo got an injury around this same time that was bad enough we had to take him in for possible tetanus shot/stitches. He has always been really anxious about health stuff (losing a tooth has caused him to faint) and ended up puking from the anxiety of it all. He's now healed but it was pretty difficult for him.

All of this stuff has piled up, and with being in lockdown there is little respite. The problem is that the kids are very bright, bright enough to read the paper or overhear conversations or just absorb the general atmosphere of worry and stress that most of the world is in. We do our best to shield them and model good emotional skills -- I'm in therapy myself (not for anxiety per se, but things that are closely related enough that I have a lot of techniques I've picked up). So I've told them about deep breathing and other techniques, try to talk about coronavirus in non-alarmist terms (and don't dwell), etc., but it's starting to feel like not enough. Both kids have complained about insomnia and have broken down crying at times saying they are worried about death. The 8yo has started asking repeatedly (multiple times per day per week) for assurance about bizarre things, like if the weed killer we put on our yard a month ago is going to make him sick, and I'm beginning to worry this is going to turn into something like OCD or agoraphobia or something if we don't get a better handle on it. Just this evening -- and the instigator of me writing this -- he cried till almost the point of vomiting because, he said, he couldn't make his brain stop thinking about dying.

Therapy is an option I'm not ruling out, but it's lockdown and will be really hard for them to build a relationship to the point that they can trust someone over telehealth, especially given their general wariness of doctors. In any case it's a more long-term option and right now I'm looking for more short-term things.

Both kids have very good metacognition, excellent reading skills, and are basically little scientists. For them, knowledge is power -- the single thing that helped my 8yo the most just now was me explaining how strong immune systems are and how white blood cells can kill germs, and whenever he started getting distressed having him visualise his white blood cells killing any germs that came along.

So, my question. I would love any ideas you have for how to help address this anxiety -- from little videos or books appropriate for kids (reading level between 2nd and 7th grade) to resources for me about things I could do to help... anything. Again keeping in mind that we're in lockdown and going to be in lockdown for a while, and covid is not going away and the world is going to keep stressing about this.
posted by sir jective to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: When I was a kind of spooky little kid, something that fascinated me and really helped me to put a lot of my fears into context was learning about the natural world and different life cycles. Can you guys take a gentle hiking trip somewhere with lots of nature? You can talk about things like the leaves turning, snails and fungus helping dead things to decay into nutrients that help new plants to grow, big fish eating little fish but then dead big fish sinking and feeding even littler animals that the little fish eat… Also longer term things like how mountains and oceans are formed, how the continents moved around and volcanoes erupted, how the planet is always changing all the time, and just because something might change or go away (like really cool volcanoes, saber tooth tigers, or grandpa) doesn’t mean we can’t love and appreciate them for having existed.

Another thing that has been utterly invaluable to me as an adult that I really didn’t appreciate at the time was that from about 9 to 13 years old my classes had units on information literacy. That means my social studies and english teachers taught us how to tell if something was a lie or misinformation, how to check sources, how to figure out if a writer was an expert in the topic, if they had consulted experts, or if they were just winging it, how to compare different articles on the same issue and contrast them. This was right on the cusp of the internet so it was a lot harder! These days the skills I learned then have been literal lifesavers because I can set my anxiety aside and figure out what kind of experts and writers I should trust, what is nonsense, what is scaremongering, etc. If I had a clue which educator championed those units in my grade school I would track them down and send them a detailed thank you letter.

I think your kid’s visualization about white blood cells is really telling. It’s wonderful that he can calm himself like that, you did a great job! Anxiety, when it spins out of control and spills over like that, is a physical thing. I think working with him to pay attention to the signs his body is giving, apart from his spiraling thoughts, and making a list he can work through to when he notices these signs, might make him a lot more confident. Stuff like, if he feels too hot, if he is dizzy, or shaking, or can’t stop fidgeting. If he is scratching or pulling hair or biting nails. Then he can start with getting a cup of water and taking slow sips, putting on some familiar music, doing some stretches and gentle exercise, playing with fidget and stim toys or a comfort item like a favorite stuffed animal, etc, and doing visualizations like the white blood cell one, or about becoming a scientist and working with lots of other scientists to help sick people, or whatever makes sense to him. In my adult experience, by the time I finish stretches, I physically feel a lot calmer and can better focus on visualizations or mantras or whatever reassuring thing I’m doing next.
posted by Mizu at 6:38 AM on September 8, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: With total respect and appreciation for what you are trying to do, what your describing is disturbing enough to not be an "ask the internet" or "do it yourself" kind of thing. You need to pull in an expert here, and that expert is going to be a child psychologist/therapist. They may not be able to build a relationship for talk therapy, but they will be able to advise on work that you can do together and that your child can do alone, readings they can do and more. This is really a moment to drop everything and bring in the experts. Your child's doctor should be able to refer you to someone. Please call them today.
posted by Toddles at 6:57 AM on September 8, 2021 [17 favorites]

Best answer: My child is struggling similarly, and we did video therapy for a couple months (which he hated, alas). I will send you a DM with more info, but this book was recommended by his therapist: What to Do When You Worry too Much. I can also send you a PDF of a workbook we used (which he also hated).

Things got better during a brief window in which he got out of the house for an outdoor summer program with other kids (exercise and socialization really helped), but due to the delta variant we’re home again and back in the anxiety spiral. Best wishes to you guys - you’re not alone.
posted by Maarika at 7:19 AM on September 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

With total respect and appreciation for what you are trying to do, what your describing is disturbing enough to not be an "ask the internet" or "do it yourself" kind of thing. You need to pull in an expert here, and that expert is going to be a child psychologist/therapist. They may not be able to build a relationship for talk therapy, but they will be able to advise on work that you can do together and that your child can do alone, readings they can do and more. This is really a moment to drop everything and bring in the experts. Your child's doctor should be able to refer you to someone. Please call them today.

Completely agree. Anxiety to the point of vomiting is do-not-pass-go, pick up the phone now stuff. Medication might be in order, for example, to manage acute anxiety episodes. Either way there needs to be an evaluation stat.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:56 AM on September 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

Also, I'm not saying that because I think the outcome will be bad for your kid or that there's a permanent Thing -- not at all. Just that it's something that needs professional intervention at this point. Hopefully the right treatment at the right point can head things off at the pass and keep things manageable.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:58 AM on September 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Seconding (on preview, thirding) the recommendation to seek professional help ASAP - and even if your kid can't establish a talk therapy relationship over Zoom, a child psychologist can train *you* in techniques that you can use to help your kid.
posted by mskyle at 7:59 AM on September 8, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: For what it's worth, my young child is adverse to meeting new people in general as well as healthcare providers in specific, but actually has done very well in forming a relationship with a therapist over video. We pitched it as "this person will help you with X"/"they know a lot about helping kids with X"/"they'll teach us ways to handle X" and I think that problem-focused approach made it more appealing than just a general "you'll be doing therapy." Also, kids' therapy can be very different than adults' in that there's the parent providing running insight into the kid's psyche that the therapist can work with even if the kid doesn't actually trust the therapist enough to share that stuff on their own. The other thing is that the therapist also offers insight back to the parent(s), and it can be really valuable, especially when it comes from their understanding of the place the child is at developmentally and how that might differ from an adult exhibiting the same symptoms.
posted by teremala at 8:05 AM on September 8, 2021 [5 favorites]

This was me as a kid and nobody did anything and I just grew up into a morbid, anxious, but functional adult! That's not to say you shouldn't find them someone to talk to; I think that would be great and likely lead to much better outcomes (I still have a lot of insomnia related to fear of mortality, for instance, though it's not panic-level the way it was when I was a kid). I just want to offer a companion perspective, to offset but not counter the sense of urgency, since I suspect it can feel a bit doomy when people are like "get your child help right now." Yes, this is worth taking seriously and tackling immediately, with outside assistance; also, at the same time, in addition to that, kids' big feelings often become easier to deal with over time and they will be okay. (They'll just be more okay, and faster, and more smoothly with good professional support.)
posted by babelfish at 9:37 AM on September 8, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I’m sorry I don’t have short term resources but if you think some kind of professional support might be needed, I’d suggest looking into it now. Am also in Melbourne and given that so many people have reached meltdown with lockdown, friends keep telling me of the very long waits for support - if you can even get on a wait list at all. Many psychologists etc have simply closed their books. So it could be a long wait, although some friends are finding their GPs are a bit useful for their kids.

If you have an Employee Assistance Plan, that may be an avenue to seek out the resources you are looking for and get other help (since they already have contracts in place with providers). Ours is offering lots of family webinars (eg about parenting, supporting kids in pandemic) at the moment.

I hope someone else has some recommendations for books and videos or other DIY approaches.
posted by AnnaRat at 3:23 PM on September 8, 2021

In addition to reaching out to health professionals, I wonder, if you think it’s relevant, if it might be helpful to talk with a children’s librarian about books that could help your kiddo. A lot of my own processing about death has come from reading, both fiction and non-fiction. From both my own perspective as a kid and my perspective as an adult, I also wonder if some movement + meditation practices, like yoga, might be helpful for feeling the aliveness of their body, practicing attending to the present moment, and building breathing skills for self-regulation. I don’t know who does good kids’/family yoga, but I’m sure good recommendations wouldn’t be hard to find.

I had major death-fear insomnia for a while when I was young, and I don’t know if my parents ever knew. Thank you for being thoughtful about your kiddo and proactively working to help.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 4:55 PM on September 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, all. I hear you and will look into therapy. That said, I suspect that AnnaRat is correct and there will be a long waiting list so I'm eager for any other suggestions you might have that will allow us to DIY it in the meantime (I appreciate the ones I've gotten!).
posted by sir jective at 5:35 PM on September 8, 2021

I had very, VERY similar severe anxiety at around the same age and seeing a therapist (in my case, the school psychologist, as I was having panic and crying episodes during the school day) was what helped the most short-term. I wish I had been set up in longer-term therapy because this type of anxiety and related intrusive thoughts about death have been a mainstay throughout my life, and I think getting more help when I was younger might have headed off some of what I experience as an adult.
posted by augustimagination at 6:29 PM on September 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

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