Preoccupation with Death and Illness

While a child's fear may be focused on one topic, it usually reflects a more general anxiety condition related to a bigger problem.
My son will turn eight in a month, and for the past six months he has been preoccupied with fear, death, and illness. It's not uncommon for something as simple as a mosquito bite to send him reeling and crying that he will die as a result. He is afraid in the middle of the day in our well-lit home and will not sleep in his own room. It's on the second floor of our home, while our room is on the first. However, our 16-month-old is in the room directly across from his.

He is a gifted child who has an excellent vocabulary, reads on a fifth-grade level, and is extremely curious. However, his constant fear is causing a great deal of emotional trauma in our home. Both his father and I are extremely attentive to him and there is no violence in our home. I've always encouraged him to talk to me about anything, and he did -- until now. He is very sensitive to others' feelings and worries needlessly about everything. He also wets his bed from time to time, and is big for his age. He is the size of a ten-year-old.

How should we deal with his fear and how can we help him overcome it?

I often see young children in my counseling practice who are overly fearful. While the fear may be focused on one topic (such as mosquito bites for your son), it usually reflects a more general anxiety condition related to a bigger problem. A parent will spend considerable time reasoning with the child about the irrationality of the worry (for example, there aren't mosquitoes flying in his closed room at night), and then become impatient when the child again becomes upset despite our reassurances. I don't think that your son's occasional nocturnal bedwetting is related to this anxiety unless it did not begin until he became so anxious.

I can't help noticing that you state the problem did not begin until about six months ago. That would coincide with the time of the terrorist attacks in America. It could be possible that the generalized worry about safety and security that many feel has affected your son. Even if this has not been a topic of discussion in your home, it certainly has been brought up in schools, and there are many visual reminders (flags, billboards, etc.) everywhere you look. It would not be unheard of for a sensitive young gifted child to take up this worry about safety/death/injury and have it "take over."

A behavior or a reaction becomes a problem when it interferes with our daily lives. It sounds as if your son's worries are disrupting his overall happiness. With this in mind, I would recommend some short-term professional counseling for your son to help him manage his fears. (Ask the counselor in advance if they have experience with gifted children). I am suggesting counseling at this point because you do not want it to develop into a Generalized Anxiety Disorder. When I work with anxious kids, I try to give them some relaxation tips to keep calm as they face their fears. An interesting book for parents, teachers, and kids is Ready..Set..R.E.L.A.X. by Jeffrey Allen and Roger Klein (1996).

I hope you find this information helpful. I really do think this behavior warrants some outside counseling. Thank you for writing. Fears and worry are very common in young children, especially those between the ages of 6 to 12. Kids have big imaginations and often fear things that are unfamiliar to them such as darkness and being alone. Other common fears for kids include things like animal attacks, fires, heights, and thunderstorms. However, with the recent COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing stories of war and violence in Ukraine around the world, kids may also start expressing more "adult" fears about getting sick or dying. Particularly, if anyone close to your child was recently sick with COVID or has died, your child may develop a fear of this happening to themselves or others. 

Noreen Joslyn is a licensed independent social worker in the state of Ohio and is a member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers. She has a master's degree in Social Work, specializing in family and children, from the University of Pittsburgh. She is a psychiatric social worker in private practice with Ken DeLuca, Ph.D. & Associates, where she counsels parents and children.

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