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Very sensitive toddler and questions about death, house fires and other 'scary things'.

(8 Posts)
dyslexicdespot Mon 24-Mar-14 11:56:13

This might not be the best section to post in, but I thought I might get some useful advice. DS ( 2.5 years old) is very verbal, perceptive and hyper sensitive.

He has been asking a lot of questions about death recently; 'what would I do if he died', 'will I die', 'why did my grandmother die' and so on.

My mother lives with us and she has had a few health scares recently. He seems to have picked up on fragments of conversations we have had and is now very worried about people disappearing.

When asked I told him that I will always be with him and take care of him. He responded by asking why my mothers mother is dead if mothers always take care of their children.

He is also really hung up on house fires and dragons. He has a couple of children's books about firefighters and has become concerned about them.

I guess my questions are; how honest should I be with him and what would an age appropriate response to his questions be, that does not belittle his fears?

Meita Mon 24-Mar-14 15:36:57

Hm my DS is about a year older than yours, and has become concerned about death and dying recently (since Christmas). It started with his Gran's cat dying, and was not helped by the fact that our own cat is VERY old and pretty poorly, and we have been waiting for her to die for a few years already (she's tenacious!) so we cannot in any way reassure him on that front. Also his Greatgranny is very old and poorly and has been expected to die for a while now...

The thing about death and dying is that most of us adults deal with it quite irrationally. We pretend it is something that only ever happens to other people, or to people who have had a long and happy life, and completely shut out the fact that we ourselves could die at any time. This can be very confusing to children, as what they see, what they see about how we react to things, and what they hear us say, can be so very disparate.

I THINK that one way to go about it could be to stress that dying is not a BAD thing. It may be SAD but not BAD. It is part of life just like falling over and hurting one's knee is.
DS has been much reassured by 'understanding' that whereas I will die one day, and he will die one day, we will both be in heaven together. Most of all, his dinosaurs will come with him to heaven, so he needn't worry about other children playing with them. grin
(Now I don't actually believe in heaven, but when my toddler sister died when I was a pre-schooler, I found the concept very comforting. It kind of means that though we are sad, it's not 'the end of the world' as there is something after)

What I found to not work, or even to make things worse, was the whole referring to 'not for a long, long time' (when referring to his death, or my death). Thing is, a long time for him can be 10 minutes. Or 5 days. Or the immensely, barely imaginable long time to his next birthday. He literally cannot make sense of what 'a long time' should mean. Explaining it to him in terms of 'first you will start school, then you will finish school, then you will maybe marry and have children of your own, then they will grow up and have children of their own, then you will be very old' doesn't work either. On the one hand, it isn't really honest - he may not live that long, and he may encounter people dying at younger ages. On the other hand, he is still very much at a stage where he is constantly creating and rejecting theories about life the universe and everything. He comes up with ideas such as, when boys grow up they turn into girls, or, when he grows up, I will be small, and when I was small, he was grown up and looked after me. Then rejects them when he realises that reality doesn't match up. Then makes a new theory. That's how children do learn to make sense of things, but it means you can't take 'common sense' understanding of life and growing etc. for granted. Young children live very much in the present and can't conceptualise much about the future.

Also, now that we have tackled death, DS is very curious about where he was 'before he was in my tummy'. When I refer to something I did when younger, he asks 'where was I when you did that?' When I say it was a long time ago, he ask 'was it when I was a baby?' then I say no, before that even, so he asks 'was I in your tummy?' and then 'was I in an egg?' (DP has an odd sense of how to explain things...told DS that before he was in my tummy, he was in a tiny tiny egg) ... and 'you did not exist' just doesn't cut it! 'Nowhere' doesn't make sense, how can you be 'nowhere'? So, having gone with 'heaven' for after death, rather than 'vanishing from existence', we've decided to go for 'heaven' for before conception as well.
(Thinking about it, maybe we could move to 'in my hopes and dreams' for before life, and 'in my (or other people's) memories' for after death, to keep it a bit more secular)

All that said, what I try to do is answer his questions honestly, even if it means saying 'I don't know' to 'when will I die?' and 'Yes' to 'will I die?'. We talk together about how it is sad, and I don't say things like 'don't be sad' but rather, 'I know, it IS sad, isn't it.' But I do reassure him when he gets really upset (such as regarding other children playing with his toys). And try to get it across that it is a normal thing that happens to everyone.

I'm sorry for this being a monstrously long post, but there is one more thing I'd like to say...
At one point DS got distressed about the prospect that our cat will die. He was very sad. I said it was alright to be sad, and that I was going to be sad too. But she wasn't dead yet so we needn't be very sad yet, but instead, should enjoy being with her, and stroke her lots so she knew that we loved her. Hmmm that probably was a mistake. After this conversation, he stroked her all the time - not a problem... but he also started conversations out of the blue starting with 'Mummy I love you! Mummy, when you die, ...?' and I fear he might have gotten a sense that he can somehow influence/ward off dying by telling people he loves them. He now is very vocal about his love for quite a number of people!

Oh and regarding the worry about fires and dragons. A lot of children become worried/scared about something at some stage. Such as monsters - DS was always fine with monsters until all of a sudden he refused having monster books read to him, and will stop me reading if a monster turns up in a book where he hadn't expected one. I think it has to do with starting to be able to control/influence things and hence becoming worried about NOT being able to control things. And also part of the magical stage. You could try equipping him with a danger banishing tool; a verse to say (Dragon dragon on the wagon, one two three away with thee (or you)), or DS has a Gargamel figure who protects him from monsters... Also this is an age where many children begin to be afraid in the dark, so a night light may help.


dyslexicdespot Mon 24-Mar-14 15:47:57

Goodness, Meita thank you so much for your incredibly helpful reply. I will respond properly this evening after I get home from work and DS is in bed!

dyslexicdespot Mon 24-Mar-14 20:41:07

DH and I have been discussing your response over dinner and we would like to thank you for taking the time to write such a wise and helpful post. It has given us a lot to think about and we greatly appreciate your advice.

The way in which young children perceive time is not something that I considered when talking to DS about death. Thanks for pointing that out. I think my response to him was an attempt to alleviate my own fears about death. DS's questions force me to think about the horrible fact that I cannot guarantee that I will live until he is an adult, or that he ever will become one.

It is very true that adults react irrationally to death. Although, I am not sure what a rational reaction would be. Perhaps it is as you suggest viewing death and a sad thing, but not bad.

So much to think about...thanks again!

Meita Mon 24-Mar-14 20:56:50

You're very welcome, I'm glad you could take something from what are basically just my ramblings based on my own experiences! Don't forget that all children are different so if something worked/didn't work for us, doesn't mean it is necessarily the same for you.

I found myself making a lot up/improvising along the way, but also had help/some wise words of advice from some friends, wouldn't have had half as much to say otherwise! Probably all that rings true is from them, and all that sounds half-baked is mine ;)

And yes it's horrible isn't it. My sister having died as a toddler I am very aware that there aren't any guarantees. And never have I myself been more worried about dying than since having DS.

LondonForTheWeekend Tue 25-Mar-14 19:36:11

wrt the house fire would it be helpful to show him where the fire alarms are. Tell him what would happen etc. Emphasise that dragons are not actually real?

TittyNotSusan Wed 26-Mar-14 07:58:17

I can't add anything to the death issue that meita has already covered so beautifully but dd did go through the fire thing at a similar age.

It was triggered because a large mill building burned down near our house and it was her main subject of fear at bedtime or nightmares from age 2 until - well it still is age 12.

She too won't read books or watch films with fire in. She's reading Jane eyre at the moment and i have warned her she might need to skip a bit!

It's a difficult fear to refute. She's never been scared of monsters or ghosts. What has worked for us is smoke alarms, discussing our fire plan and turning off unnecessary appliances at night.

The curse of the dangerously rational child!

dyslexicdespot Wed 26-Mar-14 10:25:43

Thank you both for the excellent tips. We will have a discussion with him about our fire alarms and plans. DH sets them off whenever he cooks so we know they work!

Titty, you are so right, It is hard to try and help a rational child make sense of an irrational world! I hope your DD likes Jane Eyre, despite the fire.

Thanks again,

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