It starts off with a quiet confession. “I don’t feel like I am real,” a small voice tells me from across the room. Big eyes staring back at me waiting for me to confirm her worst fears, that she is indeed crazy.
I reassure her that she is not crazy, that she is not losing her mind. I watch as the stress of this hidden worry drips off her.
I wish this was a rare occurrence, but it happens almost every week. Anxious kids pour into my office week after week talking about how they do not feel real, about how they feel like they are living in a dream. They use different words to explain it, but the sensation they are describing is all the same.
I feel like I am in a dream.
I feel like I am not in my body.
I feel like I am a robot.
I worry I am not real.
Depersonalization in children is a very real issue. Although it is often brought on by trauma, it is also the hidden step-sister of anxiety. Depersonalization is often under-reported by children and teens due to the fear of shame and embarrassment. It is only in the privacy of my therapy office; do I get a peek into how prevalent depersonalization is among anxious kids.
Feelings of depersonalization in children can happen when they are overwhelm during panic attacks, but it can linger at other times as well.
How Parents Can Help with Depersonalization in Children
When your children confess to you that they feel unreal it can be unnerving, to say the least!
At times, even parents are too concerned to bring this up in therapy, afraid I might cart their children off.
The sooner this issue can be discussed out in the open, the better it will be for your child.
1) Explain depersonalization to your children.
I see a huge relief on children’s faces when I explain that this issue has a name, that this issue is experienced by other people.
2) Teach your children grounding techniques.
One way to help the sensation of depersonalization is to help ground your children. You can do this by suggesting they:
-Pour warm or cold water on their hands or face
-Take a bath or shower
-Get a massage
-Play with kinetic sand, silly putty or a fidget toy
3) Help them re-frame their thinking.
Briefly, help your children process their fear of not being real. Discuss how anxiety can give them that sensation. Talk to them about what plans they have for the upcoming week. Going over what is happening in the present and near future can add to the feeling of stability.
Once you have briefly processed their fear, help them to not fixate on the sensation. Depersonalization feeds off fear. The more your child fixates on the sensation, the deeper it can take hold.
Move them onto a distracting activity. If your child often experiences depersonalization or panic, have an ongoing list of distraction techniques. Some simple ideas might include:
-Looking at pictures
-Playing a video game
-listening to a guided imagery CD
Get Help for Depersonalization
You don’t have to do this alone and neither does your child. If you feel like you need some additional support, contact a child therapist to help you. Having a professional in your corner can give both you and your child reassurance that you can work through this issue.
Do you or your child experience depersonalization? What helps for you? Leave a comment and give parents some extra tips. Do you know someone who could benefit from learning about depersonalization in children? Share this article with them.