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Fear of Losing You 

Tweens may worry about what will happen if you die someday. Here’s how to address their fears. by Joni S. Mantell

Nine- to 12-year-olds have seen disasters in the news and may have experienced the death of an older family member. So it’s not uncommon for kids this age to think about the eventual death of their parents. Since most tweens understand that death is permanent, they feel anxious when thinking about losing Mom and Dad.

But do adoptees—who’ve already experienced the loss of birthparents—worry more than other kids about their parents dying?

It all depends. Children who were adopted at an older age, or whose birthparents have died, may have greater concerns. But, in general, a child’s anxiety level is tied to her individual temperament, life experiences, and, most important, how her parents talk about death and dying.

Dealing with Loss
As your children learn about the cycle of life, they may have concerns about your mortality. Here’s how you can address them:

  • If your child brings up the topic, listen carefully, and ask questions before commenting. Your child’s concerns may not be what you think they are. 
  • Find out whether your child’s worries are typical for someone her age, or are somehow related to adoption. Talk with nonadoptive parents to find out whether their kids are having similar concerns, or speak to your child’s teacher (or a counselor) about which issues are age-appropriate.
  • Discuss with your child his fears of losing you, and any related emotions he might have. For instance, your child might feel “unlucky” because he lost parents before, or guilty, if he imagines the adoption (and subsequent loss) to be his fault.
  • Help your child make connections. Explain that he may worry more about current losses because of what happened in the past. You might say, “Losses seem to press your buttons; perhaps that’s because you lost your birthparents. Let’s talk about what you feel, and what we can do when those ‘hot buttons’ are pressed.”  
  • If a loved one dies, support your child’s grief and let him know that you share in it. Take this opportunity to talk with him about death and loss. Listen for adoption-related issues that the death may bring up. 
  • Encourage activities that help your child express her feelings and handle her loss. Have her write a letter to the person who died, create a memory album, or plant a special tree.
  • Seek counseling. If your child becomes preoccupied with your dying, or her anxiety is intense, consult a therapist who specializes in child development and adoption. 

Psychotherapist Joni S. Mantell is director of the Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center, in New Jersey.

What Are They Really Saying?

When tweens talk often about their parents’ mortality, they may be trying to express other underlying fears. In dreams, the subject of death often symbolizes anxiety about separation and loss, and is rarely an expression of real concern about an anticipated death. Children who seem to worry about a parent’s death may be worrying, symbolically, about the permanence of their parent’s love. A child may be thinking, “If my birthparents could leave me, could my adoptive parents abandon me, too—especially if I am bad?” 

The tween years are a good time for ongoing discussion of how love and commitment work in your family. Children this age tend to think in concrete, black-and-white ways, so you should explain things to them in such terms. Let your child know that you still love her, even when you get mad, and that your family will stick together through thick and thin.

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