I'm starting to worry about my son because he seems to get very upset suddenly out of the blue over things like death and loneliness. I'll give a few examples, tonight before bed we were reading Bambi and we get to the part where Bambi's mother dies and my son just starts crying his heart out, I don't want you to die, what will happen if you die, will you still love me if you die, what if you and daddy die etc...It's not only personal things either, he started crying when we were watching a cartoon about penguins and they all paired off but one. He sobbed and sobbed for that lonely penguin. Sometimes he looks at a picture of him and me when he was a toddler and cries because he wants to be like that again. It doesn't seem right for such a small person to be carrying so much sadness. How can I help him deal with this? Do you think there's anything underlying this I should be worried about. He has a very stable home environment and has experienced no major changes or traumas
Highly sensitive 5 year old boy
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If your son had a background of trauma, we would easily accept his need to cry. So I understand your question: How can such a little person with no major trauma in his life have such grief?
But I don't think you need to worry. I think your son is deeply sensitive and open-hearted, but well within the range of normal. Many children are able to look back and express the grief of having left the closeness of babyhood behind as they began to grow up. Many children sob over the death of Bambi's mother (as well they should.) Many children would worry about the little lonely penguin. And worrying about parents dying is completely normal for a five year old.
The truth is, these are all sad things. Coming to grips with death is one of the hardest things humans do, and your son has just discovered the truth of this tragic fact -- everyone he loves will eventually die. Those children who feel these anguishes and are unable to express them to us bottle them up, and they often end up being expressed as anger. So a tender-hearted expression is preferable by far.
But here is where it is something to watch: None of these things is real. So as a five year old it seems completely real, but as your son gets a bit older, he will be better able to understand that the little penguin is fictitious. And with your reassurance, he will understand that most humans don't die until their bodies wear out, so he will have you in his life for a very long time. So if he continues to obsess in a year or so, then this is an issue that he may need help with. In that case, it might indicate some issues with anxiety. However, I don't think it indicates that now, because you say the tears are sudden, and you do not describe him as generally anxious.
I would suggest that you give your sensitive little guy plenty of daily opportunities to roughhouse in a way that makes him giggle, which is a great way to let out any anxieties he is carrying around.
And to help him right now as he grapples with the issue of death, I would get your hands on good book about death (read them first to be sure you think the message is appropriate) and read it with your son. The message you want to give is that death is very sad but not tragic because life goes on and we remember. I would think that given your son's sensitivity, you want to use books that deal with death that is a step removed -- NOT death of parents or children, but maybe the death of a pet, for instance. There's a whole page of books to help you explain death to children on the Aha! Parenting website; check them over to see if you think any of them would be helpful without being too upsetting:
I would think your son might also benefit from doing some art. Humans have always used art in our efforts to understand the great mysteries of life, and your son seems tapped into those questions. He might benefit from a concrete way to explore and express.